Country Focus: Belize
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird
By Bruce Barcott
Published by Random House, 2008.
About the author: Barcott, a highly regarded American environmental journalist, has also written Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest from Coyote Tales to Roadside Attractions, The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, and Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
Sharon Matola, a free-spirited American woman who runs the Belize Zoo, treasures her adopted country’s scarlet macaws. When she learns of the Belizean government’s plans to dam the nearby Macal River and create a reservoir, she fears the worst. The macaws’ nesting sites lie in the valley that the new reservoir will inundate. This habitat is irreplaceable, and without it the birds will not be able to successfully reproduce. Matola begins a risky campaign against the dam, and Barcott relays her impassioned struggle to save the colorful and charismatic macaws.
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw focuses primarily on Matola and roots for her side, but that does not mean that Barcott snubs the opposition. Belizeans desperately need more electrical power, and the proposed Chalillo dam appears to be their best option. Barcott speaks to the Belizean politicians in favor of the dam, the power company executives who will build and own the dam, geologists, lawyers, and environmentalists. He shares his research on Belizean history and politics, species extinction, and the esoteric court that hears the final appeal against the dam. Barcott’s thoroughness is matched by quick pacing and readability.
“This zoo is my life’s work. I’ve spent fifteen years building it up from nothing. When I came to Mile 28 in 1982 all that was there were orphan animals and bush. I bottle-fed some of the animals as babies. Those animals are grandparents now. Those animals, they change people’s lives. Before the zoo was there, most Belizeans went their entire lives without seeing a tapir. If they saw a jaguar, they shot it. If they saw a macaw, they roasted it like chicken. They don’t do that anymore, and do you know why? Because they take their kids to the zoo on Sundays and they see the birds and they read the signs and they find out that there are fewer than two hundred macaws alive in the entire country. Belizeans aren’t stupid. It’s just that nobody gave them the information. Nobody came along and said, Say, you know what? These macaws are extremely rare and they’re yours. They’re Belize’s birds. You should be proud of them.”