SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 28, 2012 (ENS) – Rainforest Action Network and its members are mourning the sudden loss of Executive Director Rebecca Tarbotton, who died Wednesday on a beach in Mexico north of Puerto Vallarta while vacationing with her husband and friends.

The coroner declared the cause of death as asphyxiation from water she breathed in while swimming. She was 39 years old.

Rebecca Tarbotton

Rebecca Tarbotton, July 30, 1973 – December 26, 2012 (Photo courtesy Rainforest Action Network)

“Our hearts are broken. We lost a powerful, transformative leader this week. The Rainforest Action Network was her home, but the world was her stage, and her future was so incredibly bright. We can do nothing more right now than love her, her family, her husband, and her friends and colleagues. We know how much she meant to so many,” said Andre Carothers, Chair of the Board of Directors at Rainforest Action Network.

As the first woman to lead the 25-year-old Rainforest Action Network, Tarbotton achieved victories in preserving endangered rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants.

Most recently, Tarbotton helped to forge a landmark policy by entertainment giant Disney that is set to transform the way the company purchases and uses paper.

Tarbotton focused her efforts on inspiring people to work for transformational social and environmental change, and pushing the country’s biggest corporate polluters to reform their ways.

As she said during a keynote address in October 2012, “We need to remember that the work of our time is bigger than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.”

“We don’t always know exactly what it is that creates social change,” she continued. “It takes everything from science all the way to faith, and it’s that fertile place right in the middle where really exceptional campaigning happens – and that is where I strive to be.”

Tarbotton took the helm of RAN as executive director in August 2010. Prior to that she was the program director at RAN for one year and the head of the organization’s Energy and Finance program for two years.

As RAN’s Global Finance Campaign Director, Tarbotton worked with some of the nation’s most powerful corporate executives to lead RAN to an important victory: the creation of a sector-wide bank policy statement known as the Carbon Principles. The policy put limits on the financing of new coal-fired power plants, creating a pivotal moment in the battle to curtail the construction of 200 planned new coal plants.

“That’s really why I wanted to work at RAN,” Tarbotton said then. “It’s one of the few organizations out there that’s working on transforming our economy by changing the way that corporations do business. A fundamental shift is necessary to create a future where humans are in balance with nature.”

“Becky was an emerging star who was galvanizing an ever-growing movement of people demanding environment and social change,” said Nell Greenberg, spokesperson for the Rainforest Action Network.

“She believed that to protect forests and our communities we must protect our climate, and to protect our climate we must protect the forests,” said Greenberg.

“RAN is heartbroken by our loss of Becky, but we are committed to continuing the course that she set for us,” Greenberg said. “Focusing on our core purpose of protecting forests, moving the country off of fossil fuels and defending human rights through bold, effective, and innovative environmental corporate campaigns.”

Tarbotton was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on July 30, 1973. She earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal and a Master’s Degree from the University of British Columbia.

After college she interned with the David Suzuki Foundation, working on the first letter from Nobel Laureates warning of the dangers of inaction on global warming.

She worked as an environmental researcher among indigenous communities on Baffin Island in Canada, and then spent eight years in Ladakh, northern India, working with local communities to support their traditional food and farming systems. She helped to build a local alliance of women farmers from a membership of seven women to 4,000 members.

A commitment to community-led solutions drew Tarbotton to the UK, where she worked in the local food movement.

Then Tarbotton moved to California where she joined the movement against genetically modified food. She took on the role of campaign coordinator for a state-wide coalition of farmer, consumer and advocacy groups working to stop the spread of genetically modified seeds in California, county by county.

“We were winning county-level GMO seed bans and moratoriums when we realized that Big Ag was striking back, slipping seed preemption bills into state legislatures without anyone realizing it,” she recalled in a statement on the RAN website. “These bills essentially prevented any community from making decisions about what was planted within their boundaries. We knew that California was bound to be on the list and so we mounted a campaign to stopped Big Ag from doing the same thing here. After a long battle, we won.”

She was then recruited by Rainforest Action Network, where she was able to make even more progress in protecting the planet.

As RAN Executive Director, Tarbotton said, “Making systemic change in the world is hard work, decades-long hard work – but with the right combination of issues, strategies, experience and tenacity it is possible to achieve victories that have lasting impacts. We know this because for the last 25 years, Rainforest Action Network has taken on corporate titans and secured real wins for the forests, climate and human rights.”

The RAN staff, her friends and family remember a “force of nature” with an infectious laugh, adventurous spirit, and a heart bursting with love.

“Becky was a leader’s leader,” said Ben Jealous, executive director of the NAACP and a close friend. “She could walk into the White House and cause a corporate titan to reevaluate his perspective, and then moments later sit down with leaders from other movements and convince them to follow her lead. If we had more heroes like her, America and the world would be a much better place.”

Michael Brune, former executive director of Rainforest Action Network and current president of the Sierra Club, said, “Becky reshaped Rainforest Action Network, and was a force against deforestation and corporate greed. She was a rising star. We need more women to be leading environmental organizations, and losing a leader and friend like Becky is especially painful.”

Tarbotton is survived by her husband, Mateo Williford; her brothers Jesse and Cameron Tarbotton, and her mother, Mary Tarbotton, of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Her ashes will be scattered in the waters off  Hornby Island, British Columbia, where her family owns a cabin and where she spent much time with family and friends. Public memorial services will be held in San Francisco and in Vancouver. Dates are still to be determined.

Click here for video of Rebecca Tarbotton.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.