For those passionate about the environment and optimistic about the potential for partnerships between businesses and NGOs, last week’s tragic death of Rebecca Tarbotton marks a tragic start to 2013. The Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network (RAN) died in a freak accident last Wednesday at a beach north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Tarbotton was 39.
For many of the environmental movement’s most passionate advocates and true believers, Tarbotton’s ascent to head of RAN was inspirational. While young women have long been in the trenches fighting for environmental justice, climate change awareness and the need for a cleaner and greener economy, the leadership at many large environmental organizations did not reflect the troops fighting at the community level. Therefore, Tarbotton’s appointment as head of RAN in 2010, after three years at the organization, was a huge milestone.
Tarbotton’s activism hardly stopped once she took RAN’s helm. She was among the 1200 arrested for protesting in front of the White House against the Keystone Pipeline. She was also vehement in her opposition to mountaintop removal (MTR) of coal, speaking out at Bank of America shareholders meeting. Her leadership in this fight had a role in convincing several banks, including BofA, to develop policies limiting the finance of companies involved in MTR mining.
Her greatest achievement, however, was reaching a remarkable agreement with Disney. After 18 months of negotiations between RAN and Tarbotton, the media and entertainment giant agreed to cease procuring paper from endangered forests in Indonesia and elsewhere for the company’s entire operations. As Danny Kennedy, an entrepreneur and activist said to Forbes in an email, “Disney execs danced for her, timber tycoons ran from RAN because of her.” Not even Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and its well funded public relations machine could cower Tarbotton: after Disney became yet another corporate domino that cut ties with APP, the paper company’s communications department meekly announced it would provide RAN any information the NGO requested.
Rebecca Tarbotton is survived by her husband, Mateo Williford, her brothers Jess and Cameron and her mother, Mary Tarbotton. Public memorial services in San Francisco and her native British Columbia are pending. She leaves behind an incredible legacy of dedication and pragmatism, unbridled optimism and enormous shoes that will not be soon filled.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credit: Rainforest Action Network