In the high desert outside Taos, New Mexico, I drove down a dirt road that parallels the Rio Grande and saw the thick haze of a forest fire. To see the spectacle, I quickly reversed my planned course and drove as close as I was able. Across a long line of mountains, red flames flicked up like snake’s tongues amongst dense black ropes of smoke. Where the blaze had worn down, thinner smoke wisps arose above charred, black land.
One small helicopter moved high above the flames, dangling from a rope a bucket of fire retardant. From my vantage point, it looked about the size of a large picnic basket. I knew from years of living in forest-rich and tinder-dry northern New Mexico that the aircraft would make many runs, restocking and then returning to drop anew. This gesture, the repetitive pouring of small quantities of chemicals over an inferno which stretched as far west as the eye could see, seemed either nobly brave or insanely quixotic. Either way, it appeared a fool’s mission, this attempt at a solution seemingly far outstripped by the problem.
Four hours later, driving back along the same road, I again detoured to the fire site. There were no angry flames. No oily plumes billowing upward. From the disaster site remained only one column of smoke, exhaling a dying breath as it diffused into the air. The minute but steady interventions of that helicopter pilot, his patient commitment to his mission, had won the day.
This is precisely the story of organized communities and people’s movements the world over. What we see in the news and in our computer inboxes are crises. So vast and fiery are the problems that it may seem impossible to imagine that solutions exist, or that change may be imminent. And yet, 2012 brought many unlikely advances and victories, part of a long trajectory through which committed individuals are, incrementally and episodically, shifting the debate, transforming power, and winning real gains in quality of life. Below is a round-up of some such news, much of which fell below the media radar, beginning with the most recent. The stories are a small representation of the campaigns, public actions, and collective strategies that last year changed, in the grand or the local, a piece of history. Many were made possible by the organizing of people without money or connections, those whom the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called “the owners of nothing.”
For starters, who might have imagined, when 2012 was dawning, that the failures of capitalism – especially as seen through inequality which is crescendoing like a bottle rocket (currently, the richest 20 percent of the world’s population rakes in about 80 percent of total income) - would become standard dinner-table conversation in the US? Motley Occupiers around the country achieved that.
A women’s rights movement in the Philippines successfully pushed for passage of a reproductive rights bill, against heavy pressure by the Vatican. On December 21, President Benigno Aquino III signed the law, which guarantees contraception for those too poor to buy it, and promotes contraception and sex ed in schools.
You likely know that on November 29, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to “nonmember observer state,” despite the vigorous protests of Israel and the US. Less noticed was the next step in the status upgrade: on December 21, the UN changed its documents and plaques from “Palestine” to “State of Palestine.” The Palestinian delegation had requested such a change just after the General Assembly vote, but UN officials denied it at that time. This time, the UN’s legal department recommended the change, and the body concurred. These developments would never have happened without decades of resistance by Palestinians, who have continually brought their case for independence to the eyes and ears of the world.
Who could have imagined this? At the beginning of December, after 39 years of tenacious grassroots pressure, a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of eight former army officers for having assassinated folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara was a leader in the cultural uprising that was creating a new society and economy under socialist president Salvador Allende. Jara was tortured – including having his guitar-playing hands and wrists smashed, the bones broken – and executed during the military-led, and US-backed, coup.
Also at the beginning of December, a one-week strike by 450 clerical workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, won protections against outsourcing to Texas and Taiwan. Ten thousand dock workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach joined in solidarity, impacting the national economy.
Of course there was the new flurry of organizing for higher wages and better conditions by workers of Walmart, the famously anti-union mega-corporation. Walmart employs almost 1% of the US workforce. And though the store makes $15 billion a year in profits, it pays most of that workforce less than $10 an hour and denies them benefits by keeping them part-time. The organizing drive shook up the country on Black Friday, with strikes at reportedly 1000 stores. Beyond that, workers have engaged in many actions over the past months, and show no signs of abating.
On November 19, significant pressure from different social sectors of Colombia brought the government and the FARC rebels to the negotiating table. While they have yet to come to agreement on their five-point agenda, this is still a move in the right direction for a five-decade internal armed conflict. It is the oldest in the world and one which has brought the death of at least 300,000 people and the disappearance of at least 27,000 more, most since the 80s. Another 4.5 million have been forcibly displaced by the military and its paramilitary associates.
Earlier in the year, the indigenous Nasa people in the Cauca region of Colombia chose to take the peace process into their own hands. For decades, they have been terrorized by the military on the one hand and FARC on the other. In July, they reclaimed their territory. Community members mobilized to expel soldiers and dismantle the illegal military installations on their lands. A group of women took prisoner the FARC guerrillas who had engaged in attacks against them, and confiscated their weaponry. Nasa authorities convicted the guerrillas of crimes against humanity and condemned each to 30 lashes, a local ritual which represents purification.
An advisory referendum in Iceland in late October, regarding a draft constitution, included this question: “In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?” In a resounding display of support for the global commons, eighty-one percent voted yes.
In February and again in October, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) won two more in a string of 11 victories that commenced in 2005, after a four-year boycott against Taco Bell. Last year, both Chipotle Mexican Grill and Trader Joe’s signed onto the Fair Food Program, almost doubling the wages for tomatoes picked and guaranteeing a code of fair conduct for the pickers. The CIW, a small group of farmworkers from the hardscrabble Florida town of Immokalee, are the embodiment of the (source-disputed) quote, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” The farmworkers and their allies are moving like steamrollers toward getting all tomatoes picked in the US with dignity, rights, and fair wages. Publix, CIW’s current target, may as well just give up now.
Cornell University terminated its contract with Adidas for the corporation’s labor violations, the first university to do so. The victory came October 1, after a campaign led by the 150-campus United Students Against Sweatshops, for Adidas having closed a plant in Indonesia without warning, leaving almost 3,000 workers unemployed and without severance pay.
In Chicago - the third-largest school district in the nation - more than 29,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike last September to advance demands for better health benefits, job security, and changes in teacher evaluation systems. While winning many concessions from the district, the strike also elevated discussion of systemic problems resulting from school “reform” efforts around the country, such as growing racial segregation of schools, school closings, and the corporate-backed move towards privatization of education.
In South Africa, 25,000 Lonmin platinum mineworkers who survived the August 16 massacre (in which 34 were killed and 78 wounded) stayed out on a wildcat strike another three weeks. In September, they won a 22% wage increase. They also inspired a wave of strikes in the world's most unequal country, helping to justify the World Economic Forum's naming of South African workers as the world's most militant in 2011-12.
In Argentina three years ago, significant pressure by media activists and progressive intellectuals pushed through a law to free the press from its singular control by the elite. The law’s most important contribution was to commit 33% of the FM band to non-profit media. When a suit by the media group Grupo Clarín challenged the law, a judge declared radio to be part of the public good, and said that liberty of expression does not give “absolute immunity to excessive concentration.” While some aspects of the law remain blocked, and the decision is being appealed by Clarín, community mobilization resulted in 2012 in the granting of licenses to many groups who had long awaited the ability to control their own media. They included indigenous peoples, cooperatives, and rural low-frequency stations.
The indigenous Achuar people of Peru won their multi-year fight against oil exploration by Talisman Energy on their Amazonian lands. On September 13, Talisman announced it would stop exploration and would leave Peru as soon as it wrapped up ongoing commercial transactions. "Now that Talisman is leaving we can focus on achieving our own vision for development and leave a healthy territory for future generations," said Peas Peas Ayui, President of the National Achuar Federation of Peru (FENAP).
Three years of intensive advocacy, protests, legal efforts, and media campaigns in Haiti and around the world finally resulted in some progress in deterring and punishing rape against Haitian women and girls. The incidence of abuse escalated hugely after the 2010 earthquake, especially against those who have been left exposed and vulnerable in internally displaced people’s camps. The criminal court session of last summer included the unprecedented number of 22 rape cases. Of the 13 results that were posted, 12 were convictions, and only one was an acquittal. And the Ministries of Justice and Women’s Affairs are moving forward in drafting laws to make it easier to prosecute rape as a crime and to decriminalize abortion in limited cases, such as rape and incest.
The Kichwa people of Sarayaku, Ecuador won two precedent-setting victories. First, in April, the national government acknowledged responsibility for illegally granting a license to an oil company to do business on indigenous territory without the community's consent. Then in July, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Ecuadoran government for not having consulted with the community before signing the exploration agreement with the company, and ordered the government to pay the Kichwas $1.34 million in damages, and more in reimbursement for legal fees.
In May and June, the world saw a Mexican-style Occupy arise with the Yo Soy 132 (I am 132) movement. Students and others rose up throughout the country in a mass mobilization against PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, and against control of elections and the press by the elite. At that time, and through subsequent public actions, the movement has shown its fierce commitment to remain a force in reclaiming democracy and freedom of expression. The Mexican Spring also includes the reappearance of the Zapatistas, beginning on December 21 when more than 40,000 of the Mayan revolutionaries marched to five cities for a silent demonstration of strength.
In Senegal in March, sustained protests and a landslide vote blocked President Abdoulade Wade from an unconstitutional third term.
In Nigeria at the very beginning of last year, labor unions and activists defeated the attempted removal of gas subsidies by the government and the IMF. Strikers and demonstrators across the country almost brought down the Jonathan administration as they achieved their goal of keeping gas prices low.
Are we winning? No. We are getting hammered by those more powerful and rich than we, who are able to buy up elections, the sky (think carbon offsets), the historical record, and pretty much everything else you can think of. If you’re from the Northeastern US, you lived through the fallout of climate change-induced crazy weather. If you’re part of the 99%, you surely know someone who has lost their job, apartment, or home in the past few years. If you’re from Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, you may know someone on Obama’s “kill list,” or just an unlucky bystander, who was assassinated by a drone strike in 2012.
Noam Chomsky once said in a Democracy Now interview, “If you want things to stay exactly the way they are, just do nothing.” Alternatively, with the knowledge that almost anything is possible in 2013, but that we never know where or how change will spark, we can choose to do as much as we can, all the time.
To slightly revise the anonymous quote: Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you may land among the stars.
 Juan Carlos Houghton, human rights researcher and editor of La tierra contra la muerte: Conflictos territoriales de los pueblos indígenas en Colombia, CECOIN, 2008.
Thanks to Saulo Araújo and Sara Mersha of Grassroots International (US), Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society (South Africa), Juan Carlos Houghton (Colombia), Ernesto Lamas of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Argentina), Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South (Philippines), Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (US/Haiti), and On the Commons (US).