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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Book Review: Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

"Belize draws the eccentric, the madcap, and the downright mad.  In this colorful human menagerie it takes some doing to stand out, but there is one woman who manages to delight, enrage, captivate, frustrate, and inspire her fellow Belizeans more than anyone else.  She's the proprietor of the Belize Zoo.  Her name is Sharon Matola."

Despite the title, the scarlet macaw doesn’t feature too prominently in Bruce Barcott’s piece of environmental journalism.  Macaws do appear in it – as do jaguars, harpy eagles, and Baird’s tapirs, to name a few animal costars – but only in the role of a catalyst for the story.  Instead, the book is the tale of Belize, an obscure Central American country, largely ignored by the rest of the world.  It is this indifference, this lack of attention, which has allowed some shady deals to unfold over the years, including a proposal for the construction of a dam which would destroy some of the most pristine habitat in Central America.

Unfortunately for government ministers and dam investors, some people were paying attention.  Among them was Sharon Matola, the founder and director of the Belize Zoo.  Matola created the zoo – founded with the leftovers from a wildlife documentary shooting – with the twin purposes of housing non-releasable native wildlife and introducing Belizeans about their wildlife heritage.  When Matola learned about the proposed dam and what its impact would be on the wildlife of Belize, she (respectfully) called attention to the issue.  When the government tried to intimidate and silence her, she gathered allies – both in Belize and around the world – and fought back.

The book is a fun ramble over a series of topics – from tropical ecology to the Matola’s biography, the history of Belize to the history of dams.  For most of the topics involved, if you’re looking for a specialist source of information, you can find a better one – that’s not what this book is.  Instead, it’s a front-row view of a scene that’s unfolding all over the world – striking a balance between environmental protection and economic development.

In some ways, the expose of the Chalillo Dam isn’t the best example, because Barcott goes to show it’s such a corrupt, uneconomical, impractical project that it should’ve been dismissed immediately.   If it had been perhaps a better project, one that would have made a real improvement in the lives of local people, the story would have been different.  In either case, the book does force the reader – especially the North American or European nature lover – to re-examine their feelings about the environment-economy debate in the developing world. 

Just playing devil’s advocate – the more we learn about the dam through the eyes of the author, the sketchier the whole thing seems.  Still, ignoring this particular case, it does raise questions.

Proponents of the dam point their fingers at Matola and her allies and accused them of meddling at best, of neocolonialism or (in the case of Matola and other Belizean citizens) treason at worst.  “This is our country, our people are poor, and we need this,” they say, “What right have you to dictate to us what to do in our own nation?”  They do have a point – it’s easy for us to place more value on scarlet macaws than on sustenance farmers.  Besides, we’re saying these things after having already destroyed most of our own ecosystems (including damming a heck of a lot of our own rivers) – what gives us the right to judge?  But on the other hand, if the governments charged with the task of protecting wild animals and wild habitats won’t do their job, then who will?

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