Book Review: The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott – Belize, Central America

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

"One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird", the book's subtitle is the fascinating account of Sharon Matola "the Doctor Doolittle of Belize". How she ended in Belize, the independent path she took and the opportunities she didn't pass up to do what she loves, absorbed, inspired and made me pause to reflect on the choices we make along the path of life.

All animals in Ms. Matola's zoo are native to Belize. None have been purchased or captured. Every one was donated for the usual reasons: outgrew their owners, abandoned, disabled, uncontrollable, aged, casualties of poachers. A crocodile stays at the zoo of his (her?) choice to feed and enjoy the surroundings. A three-legged jaguar shares Sharon Matola's office. Favorite of the zoo is April the tapir. Brought to the zoo because a screwworm had lodged beneath its fur, the zoo lady decided it wouldn't die. It didn't.

The book focuses on the building of a hydroelectric dam and Ms. Matola's efforts to stop the project, not because she is against progress, but because this particular dam would benefit so few at a high cost to the environment and its inhabitants. Through an interesting, smart and engaging writing, the author begins by taking the reader on a history tour of Belize. We learn it's the youngest country in the Western Hemisphere, given its independence from Britain only in 1981 (a story in itself). Don't let its youth fool you; it's steeped in tradition and protocol, burdened by its British upbringing. Belize is also a small country; population 275,000. Everyone knows everyone else's business. Government officials double up, triple up on responsibilities. Power is concentrated in a few (about 1,000) educated Belizeans. One does not confront or disrespect government officials. Disagreements are kept private, within the ruling family.

When Sharon Matola decides to go against the government for the first time in her Belizean life, she knows she needs to walk softly. Being white and female don't help. What does though, are her work ethic, long hours, fine reputation, abundant energy, extensive field knowledge, good network system and passion for what she does, what she believes in. Unbeatable, or are they!

Ms Matola bases her opposition to the dam on the Scarlet Macaws' dwindling numbers (200 she estimated). We find out where these parrots came from, what caused their dwindling numbers, how they adapted (somewhat) and why they are protected. In retaliation, the government chooses a site for its garbage right next to the zoo. First she must fight the dump battle before moving on to the "dam" battle.

We're given a fine education on dams, the water wheel, Belize/Guatemala feud, still ongoing and how it impacted the dam, similarities between Belize and Newfoundland and much more. All the ingredients that go into a captivating and suspenseful thriller are here: corruption, greed, fear, power, surprise, love, one drawback after another with each success, cover ups, deceit, fraud – the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful – some of each in unlikely places. We become aware of the numerous players and layers that will make this fight long and hard. Fair play is not part of the game; only obstacles.

The segment on the judge presiding in the final court case in Belize is another fascinating part of the story, as well as the trial before the Privy Council in London. Mr. Barcott involves the reader with usage of direct quotes, background information that is absolutely relevant to the pace and understanding of the account, qualifications of individuals, even physical descriptions. All this brings the reader into the front row of the drama, involved and active. And this is because the author was himself very much in the thick of things.

The zoo lady does not win. In her words, "You don't stop. If you lose a battle, that doesn't mean you stop. You keep fighting. You find other battles. The work to save what's left of nature is endless. You can really get down and depressed. But you can't stop and stand aside and let the wheels keep rolling in the wrong direction."

Some people may find a few of the details cumbersome. I didn't. Most of it was pertinent to the story. A few pages I skimmed and only a few.

I stated above that all animals in the zoo are native to Belize. That's not true now. When the building of the dam began, Ms. Matola started introducing the Harpy Eagle into Belize. She couldn't insure the Scarlett Macaw's continued existence in Belize, but she could bring another bird to the country she calls home.

You can purchase The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw here.