A Tribute to Rebecca Tarbotton – A leader of RAN, International Rivers and a Generation

Jason Rainey
Rebecca Tarbotton

Rainforest Action Network and International Rivers (Network) have a sisterhood that extends back a generation. The story of how RAN and “IRN” were two of the founding projects of David Brower’s Earth Island Institute 30 years ago is one that John Knox of EII often tells with a sort of fatherly pride. Both organizations have since grown into their own. RAN and International Rivers continue to share a kinship not unlike two siblings: finding their own niche in the world, always there to lend a hand to each other, with an ever-present deep-heart and strategic connection. Our efforts are aligned to stop misguided development from destroying rivers and rainforests, go after the investors that finance this devastation, protect the rights and livelihoods of affected communities, and promote sustainable solutions. We support each other’s campaigns, like halting the Belo Monte Dam that will destroy both rivers and rainforests in the Amazon. And we share vital people like Becky Tarbotton, RAN’s Executive Director, who also served on International Rivers’ Board of Directors.

So the loss of Becky, who died in Mexico on December 26, has all of us at International Rivers reeling in sadness. Becky was an inspiring and energetic part of our organization and our hearts go out to our sister-organization RAN, to Becky’s family, her husband Mateo, and the wider environmental community.

Becky’s commitments and leadership in rainforest protection, challenging and transforming corporate actors, and tackling climate change head-on are well known.  But Becky didn’t stop there. Since joining the Board of Directors of International Rivers in 2010, Becky also championed the critical work of protecting the world’s rivers from the destructive forces of rampant large dam schemes.

Becky was radical – in the oldest meaning of the word, “relating to the root.”  She understood that the forces destroying rainforests and damming rivers were systemic and deeply engrained in today’s dominant economic and political structures. She recognized – as many of us do – that to buffer against climate chaos, economic upheaval, and the rapid depletion of Earth’s natural capital requires a wholesale transformation of these root drivers of environmental destruction. Her distinction is that she wasn’t afraid to call it out, and then to galvanize people around transformational work: “What we're really talking about, if we're honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet,” she stated. 

International Rivers Board of Directors, July 2012
International Rivers Board of Directors, July 2012

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of such challenges, Becky found effective ways to act on these root drivers.  Her most recent accomplishment – and one she’d certainly credit to her team at RAN – of transforming Disney’s paper procurement practices, is just one remarkable example of radically changing an industry leader, so that others may follow.

In October 2012, Becky shared her insights into effective and hard-ball corporate campaign strategies at International Rivers’ annual Staff Convergence. Our campaign staff admired Becky’s spirit, savvy, and humor, and were looking forward to future opportunities to learn from this “fantastic and inspirational” leader. On the Board, Becky was both practical and inspirational, and she generously shared opportunities for promoting both RAN and International Rivers’ work. “What I loved about working with Becky was that she could be deeply insightful, analytic, and provocative about a complex set of environmental issues and then, in the next breath, start giggling about her crazy-morning bike commute or start sharing recipes for how to use all the surplus tomatoes from her garden,” shared Deborah Moore, Board Chair of International Rivers. “Her spark and pizzazz energized us all.”

At RAN’s annual Revel event in October 2012, Becky said “We don’t always know exactly what it is that creates social change. It takes everything from science all the way to faith, and it’s that fertile place right in the middle where really exceptionally campaigning happens—and that is where I strive to be.” When she spoke of the place between “science” and “faith,” I believe she was harkening us all to find that place that fluidly integrates our analytical and discerning selves with our deeper spiritual and moral compass.  Becky lived well in that “fertile place” and calls upon us all – as individuals, organizations, and social movements – to embrace this wholeness in our lives and in our activism.

In our parallel roles as EDs of these sister organizations, I came to know and admire Becky. We discovered our parallel paths and the similar forces that shaped us and led us to our current positions. We were about the same age – born a year or two after the first Earth Day. We were both drawn to work with indigenous communities, needing to confront that painful history for our own awakening and maturation. We both lived overseas for long stretches – Becky in Ladakh and me in Siberia. Becky and I were just beginning to learn these parallels in our lives and the foundations for our activism. At our last breakfast meeting together we even discovered that we might have met a decade earlier, if not for a landslide that blocked my bus en route from Kashmir to Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya.  “Ah well,” we thought, “let’s rejoice at the opportunities we’ll have to work together from here forward….” We at International Rivers are all feeling the loss of these missed future opportunities.

Becky was a luminous star, still very much on the rise. Andre Carothers, the Chair of the Board at RAN and former Vice Chair of the International Rivers Board, refers to Becky as a Supernova—and that metaphor shines true for me.  Yet for all that made Becky exceptional, I think she would have been the first to say that these movements--for rainforests, for rivers, for a re-localization of economy, for rekindling our ancient connections to Earth-- are way more expansive than any individual.  The kind of leadership she espoused—the vibrant life she lived—doesn’t belong to just those who carry the title of Director.  Nor is it restricted to a particular generation. Her spirit, humor, courage and clarity in grasping what these urgent times demand of us, are traits we can all affirm as our own.  In honoring Becky in our daily lives from here forward, may we all exercise such leadership and find our own ways of making a difference in our communities.

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