Book Review

‘The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw’ by Bruce Barcott

by Kim Steutermann Rogers – Special to The Garden Island

According to Bruce Barcott “90 percent of all bird extinctions in the past 400 years have happened on islands.”

That’s not surprising news to residents of Hawai‘i.

In “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird” (Random House; $26), Barcott chronicles Sharon Matola’s crusade to stop a multinational corporation from building a dam that, she argues, will exterminate the last 200 scarlet macaws of Belize. It’s the archetypal fight: environmentalists versus big business. And sitting in the corner of big business is a corrupt government.

But wait. Belize isn’t an island, you may be thinking, and you’re right. “Belize is a tiny nation tucked between Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” Barcott writes. “It’s firmly attached to Central America but considers itself a Caribbean island, like a chicken that thinks it’s a duck.”

Some compare “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” to Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” and, indeed, Barcott’s protagonist is as quirky as Orlean’s John Laroche. If Matola ever put together a resume for an ordinary job — not that she would — it would include stints as a tiger tamer in a traveling Mexican circus, mycologist, Air Force survival specialist and Belize zoo owner. “She once smuggled a spider monkey across the Mexican border by swimming the Rio Grande with the animal balanced on her head,” writes Barcott, a contributing editor at Outside magazine and the author of “The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier.”

But “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” has something that Orlean’s book didn’t when it was first published — relevance. That makes Barcott’s book one chicken that does not think it’s a duck. Addressing energy demands, environmental destruction, species extinction and economic survival, “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” is a newsworthy story told in microcosm. The book is part-environmental expose, part-adventure travel, part-biography, part-nature writing, part-suspense — and wholly intriguing. Believe it or not, it’s a page-turner. Right up until the end when the NRDC and the environmentalists take on the Canadian corporation and the government of Belize among, of all places, the law lords of England’s Privy Council.

American by birth, Matola arrived in Belize in 1982 as an assistant on a nature documentary. At the end of the film shoot, the director left the country and left Matola with a jaguar, two macaws, a 10-foot boa constrictor and 17 other animals. What was Matola to do? Simple … she opened a zoo.

Matola spent the next 17 years caring for her animals, taking in strays — mostly abandoned pets and injured animals: a tapir that had been shot in the head and left to die; a three-legged jaguar; an orphaned jabiru stork. She doesn’t import animals. “None of the animals were snatched from the wild,” writes Barcott. “There are no penguins or tigers or bears. Every species in the zoo occurs naturally in Belize.”

Today, the zoo houses 125 individual animals and more than 70,000 visitors stop by annually to see her motley crew. That’s more than one-quarter the population of the country. Once, even the prince of England popped in for a visit.

The first day of February 1999 started like any other. The “Zoo Lady,” as Matola was by now called, arrived at the zoo just after dawn and headed to her office with a mug of coffee and the local newspaper. Buried deep in the paper, one headline caught her attention: “Cabinet Re-thinks Hydro Holding Reservoir Construction Site.” It seems the government had selected a new location for a 30-meter concrete dam that would include a 20-kilometer-long reservoir. That new location: Chalillo. The proposed dam that would reduce Belize’s dependence on neighboring countries for electricity would flood the lone nesting site of the scarlet macaw.

Matola’s protest started with a letter to the prime minister. It elevated to community protests and eventually gained the support of one of the most powerful environmental groups in the world, the Natural Resources Defense Council. The protesters discovered falsified environmental assessments, inflated economic reports and sweetheart deals.

Politics. Corruption. Fraud. Power. Through it all, Barcott sits back, calmly and deftly unraveling the tangled knots of the story. Although the reader clearly understands where Barcott stands on the issue — this is the story of the pro-macaw, anti-dam eccentric, after all — he waits until the epilogue to come out with it.

“The world has more than 70 years of experience with mammoth concrete dams,” Barcott writes. “We know that they kill rivers. We know that they often serve as boondoggles for corrupt governments.”

For Barcott, the question of what happens in Chalillo isn’t the only one that needs an answer. There’s another one. It has to do with hindsight and morals.

“Is it better for First World citizens to withhold our hard-won experience and scientific knowledge from our Third World counterparts simply to avoid the specter of post-colonial guilt? We built easeful lives of luxury here in the United States, but our environment paid a high price. The developing world pioneered the concept of technological leapfrogging by bypassing land-line phones and moving straight to cellular service. The same idea must be applied in the environmental realm. Others can get to where we are, and they don’t have to take the same steep mountain passes. There are wider, easier and better roads now.”

Unfortunately, money often wins out over morality, according to Barcott. Power often silences the protesters. The Golden Rule is easily broken. That’s where the Sharon Matolas of the world come in. “People like Sharon are rare and strange and sometimes aggravating,” writes Barcott. “They don’t calm choppy waters. They barge in and stir things up and make people frown when they’d rather smile.”

Eccentric and unconventional, they may lose one battle after another, but they do not disappear. Unlike their birds, they do not go extinct. They persist. “These people aren’t perfect. They aren’t simple heroes,” writes Barcott. “They are complex human beings. And we need them. Because without them the world would be lost.”

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