The Story of a Bird, a Woman, and Giving a Dam
A Contrary review by Laura M. Browning

        Bruce Barcott's The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw reads more adventure novel than non-fiction book—a book which, as it turns out, is mostly about dams. Scarlet macaws might sound more interesting, but with Barcott at the helm, a small Belizean dam unfolds into a story not just about the possible extinction of Belize’s remaining macaws, but about an international struggle pockmarked with corruption and power, pitting David against Goliath and native against outsider. It is a global drama that begins in the jungle and visits North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Newfoundland before its resolution in an oak-paneled room in London.    
        Barcott anchors the book with the story of a passionate Iowan named Sharon Matola but called the Zoo Lady, an eccentric and well-known figure in Belize who is equally beloved and hated. Matola, now a Belizean citizen but still an outsider in this proud Central American nation, runs the Belize Zoo. Most people in Belize are familiar with the rich folklore of their native animals—agoutis, scarlet macaws, spider monkeys—but many have never seen them. The Zoo Lady began the zoo with a dream, a deep love for animals, and a lot of stubbornness, and has built the zoo around Belize’s unwanted—a three-legged jaguar, a tapir with a bullet lodged in its head, an orphaned jabiru stork. 
        When Matola gets word that a dam will be built in an ecologically rich part of the jungle, where Belize’s remaining 200 scarlet macaws nest, she realizes that she is one of the few people equipped to fight it. Only she realizes that the Chalillo Dam would flood the macaws’ nests, bringing Belize’s remaining population to extinction within a few years. And Matola is one of the few people who realize just how rare and important these 200 birds are. Although technically not endangered because of healthy populations in South America, these bright red birds are almost certainly a subspecies endemic to Belize, found nowhere else. They draw ecotourists and their money to a small village nearby.  The Chalillo Dam would be expensive, far more so than alternatives; it could cripple the burgeoning ecotourism industry; the proposed location is near a fault line; and it would produce six megawatts of power. Six megawatts will power only about 6,000 U.S. households, but it would supply about a tenth of Belize’s electricity.
        "Let's get one thing straight,” Matola says. “I'm not against all dams. They want to build a 50-meter high dam. With a dam that big you're usually talking about hundreds of megawatts. If it were giving that much power, as much as you need for all of Belize, I wouldn't stand in the way. But we're talking about six megawatts!"
        Six megawatts might not turn on many lights, but it’s plenty of power for a political machine. In Belize, Barcott says, “robbery is carried out by pen, not pistol.” A local joke, he says, asks what the best way is to leave Belize with a million dollars. The answer? “Arrive with two!” 
        Barcott has walked the unpaved streets and jungles of Belize, and it shows. Without his swashbuckling accounts of Belizean history and colorful characters who still oil the machine, Matola’s fight against the Chalillo Dam would seem incredible at best, fabricated at worst. After all, Matola has both science and passion on her side—as well as one of the world’s most stunning birds, a creature, Barcott says, that “looks like it has been dreamed up by Dr. Seuss.” But Belize’s colonial history as Britain’s lumberyard, and its sliver of land between Guatemala and Mexico, means it has something to prove. It has a growing tourism industry but no way of powering it—except by buying electricity or making it with rivers. Matola, still an outsider in her adopted country, wrestles bull-headed government officials and beleaguered nongovernmental organizations. Barcott treats her story with empathy and fairness, and manages to find encouragement amid heartbreak.

Laura M. Browning is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw
by Bruce Barcott
2007,  Random House

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