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#268110 - 02/16/08 10:56 AM Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw - NYT
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#268119 - 02/16/08 11:29 AM Re: Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw - NYT [Re: Sir Isaac Newton]
Marty Offline
February 17, 2008
Of Crime and the River
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One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird.

By Bruce Barcott.

313 pp. Random House. $26.

In his unparalleled “Encounters With the Archdruid,” John McPhee describes the conservationist’s version of “hell on earth” as a series of concentric circles. At the outermost ring of the “devil’s world” is a moat “filled mainly with DDT” (this was 1971, remember). Next comes “a moat of burning gasoline,” then there are bulldozers and chain saws, until one reaches “the absolute epicenter ... where stands a dam.” Why? “Because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.” It’s that simple.

When McPhee wrote “Encounters With the Archdruid,” the American conservation movement was a religious and mystical force. It may still be so today, but the movement now employs nearly as many big-city lawyers and consultants as any corporation hoping to develop a mine, oil field or... dam. They’re out in force in Bruce Barcott’s new book, “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird,” the story of a bitter fight against a dam in western Belize. No, it doesn’t sound thrilling (which is doubtless why the publisher kept the word “dam” out of the title), but Barcott, a contributing editor at Outside magazine and the author of “The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier,” makes it so, mashing up adventure travel, biography and nature writing in a steamy climate of corruption and intrigue.

At stake is a magnificent (of course) river valley, home to a Who’s Who of threatened neotropical charismatics: tapirs, pumas, river otters, howler monkeys and the eponymous scarlet macaw. Leading the anti-dam brigade, in the name of biodiversity wrecked, is Sharon Matola, an impetuous autodidact who runs the Belize Zoo. Matola is described as a motorcycle-riding, lion-taming, monkey-smuggling Air Force veteran who’s expert in jungle survival and in mushroom, tapir and macaw biology. But because she’s an American, it’s easy for corrupt local officials to marginalize her as an enemy of the state and her ex-pat allies as “wealthy white foreigners determined to keep Belizeans hungry and poor.” “First came the Spanish,” Barcott writes, “then the British, and now the American Greens.”

Attempting to silence Matola, the government threatens to stick a garbage dump next to her zoo, but instead of backing down she calls in one of the most powerful environmental groups in the world, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sees in the plight of the flamboyant macaw — of which Belize has only 200 left — an easy win.


The more the N.R.D.C. learns about the proposed dam, the worse it looks for its boosters. An exhaustive environmental analysis reveals the project will destroy plant and animal habitats, and the dam will threaten the lives and livelihoods of people downriver, some of whom depend on ecotourism dollars. A close look at the dam’s economics shows it will raise, not lower, energy rates for Belizeans. The dam’s geological analysis is a complete fiction, claiming granite where there is none; the project’s engineers have even contrived to erase a geologic fault line from a map of the site. And while the developers claimed the project would give the country energy independence, sweetheart deals promised riches to the dam’s first owner, the multinational Duke Energy, whether power was produced or not. As Barcott writes, “the dam was a fiasco: environmentally devastating, economically unsound, geologically suspect and stinking of monopoly profiteering.”

Yet Matola and the N.R.D.C. are helpless to stop it. And this story of defeat is fascinating for what it reveals about environmental imperialism, the legacy of colonial oppression and the enduring temptations of power. The legal case against the dam eventually worked its way through Belizean courts to the law lords of England’s Privy Council. There, evidence and precedent appeared to be on the environmentalists’ side until Belize’s attorney general made the case for his country’s economic progress. And then all of a sudden, an environmentalist who witnessed the proceedings says, it became five white guys in England “telling the black guys in Belize whether they can turn the lights on or not.”

You may think you’ve heard this tale before: the tree/bird/fish huggers against the land-raping multinationals. But few parts of Barcott’s story are what they appear: what’s local is global, insiders are outsiders (and vice versa) and scientists transform themselves, with the signing of nondisclosure agreements, into “biostitutes” for hire. Matola herself is a complicated hero — “strange and sometimes aggravating.”

Barcott deftly unsnarls his story’s many strands and keeps them taut. He explains complicated deals clearly, dramatizes legal proceedings and leads readers on delightful (to this reviewer, at least) excursions into how one makes, stores and moves energy from water; the environmental downside of dams; and how and why animals go extinct. With a deep understanding of so many environmental issues and their larger context, Barcott presents evidence and then states strongly — but never shrilly — what other writers might hedge on. Mammoth concrete dams “kill rivers.” Programs to mitigate a dam’s biological damage “usually disappear once the dam goes up.” Habitat destruction in remote areas, like Belize’s Macal River valley, “happens because too many people are willing to serve up half-truths, erase fault lines and rig studies in order to get paid. It happens because too few people have the courage or capacity to stand against powerful institutions on behalf of powerless creatures like red seed-eating birds.”

At the turn of the 20th century, John Muir and a band of allies rallied to stop the construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park. Muir lost, San Francisco got great water and the modern American environmental movement was born. In closing, Barcott inevitably compares the fight against the Macal dam with the one against Hetch Hetchy, noting that Yosemite was flooded during a time of great natural abundance. Inundating the Macal may be an even greater crime, the author suggests: we have many years’ worth of experience with destructive dams, and so very little of the natural world remains.

Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” and the forthcoming “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”

#277583 - 04/21/08 11:52 AM Re: Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw - NYT [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline
Review and Opinion by LAN SLUDER

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, by Bruce Barcott. Random House, 2008. 313 pp.

You probably won't find Bruce Barcott's The Last Flight of the Scarlet
Macaw in the travel book or nature guide sections of your bookstore,
but it just may be the best field guide to Belize you'll ever read.

Ostensibly the story of Sharon Matola, founder of the amazing Belize
Zoo, and her campaign to defeat the Chalillo Dam on the Macal River in
Western Belize and to save the nesting ground of what are believed to
be the last 200 Scarlet Macaws in Belize, it's actually a 313-page
crash course on Belizean culture, society and politics.

It's also the most riveting, gossipy and entertaining book on the
country since Richard Timothy Conroy's 1997 memoir of British Honduras
in the 1950s, Our Man in Belize.

Barcott names names. He pulls no punches. As an American writer –
he's a contributing editor to Outside Magazine and the author of a
book on Mount Rainier, among other things – he doesn't have to worry
about making a living in Belize or raising a family there. He points
to the corruption that Lord Michael Ashcroft, the British-Belizean
politician and entrepreneur, helped introduce in Belize and who
"turned the sovereign nation of Belize into his own tax-free holding
company," to the fast-buck shenanigans of the second generation of
People's United Party politicians, to the seamy Dark Side of the PUP's
"Minister of Everything" Ralph Fonseca, to the shrill shilling of
party spokesman Norris Hall, to the fellow-traveling of the Belize
Audubon Society and even to the bumbling efforts of some well-intended
but barely competent Belizeans.

I've been banging around Belize for more than 17 years, but Barcott's
book is full of insights I've missed or didn't understand. It took
Barcott to tell to me why so many Belizean politicians wear guayaberas
and other open-neck shirts (to set themselves apart from their English
colonial masters who slaved in the heat in coats and ties). Barcott
explained why and how the Belize Audubon Society, which one would
think would be on the side of the at-risk Scarlet Macao, helped get
the Chalillo Dam approved (the Belize Audubon Society, under President
José Pepe Garcia, at that time a quasi-arm of the Belize government,
claimed the Scarlet Macao subspecies wasn't really endangered in
Belize and that the habitat of the Macal River Valley was duplicated
elsewhere in Belize.)

If there's a fault to Barcott's approach, it's that he relies heavily
on the gringo side of the outsider-local divide so common in
post-colonial countries, including Belize. Many of his primary
sources – Matola, ex-Fleet Street newspaperman Meb Cutlack, Lodge at
Chaa Creek co-owner Mick Fleming, butterfly expert Jan Meerman,
geologist/dolomite miner Brian Holland and others –while long-time
residents of Belize and in many cases Belize citizens -- will always
be viewed by some Belizeans as expat, white perpetual tourists.
Barcott tried twice to interview George Price, Belize's ascetic,
incorruptible George Washington, but was turned away: "He's too
busy," the retired Price's sister told him. We hear little or nothing
directly from Said Musa, King Ralph or Lord Ashcroft.

It also bugs me that Barcott's publisher, Random House, didn't do a
bloody index.

Sharon Matola comes across as a complex and sometimes exasperating
woman, neither St. Joan of Arc nor Wangari Maathai. A fluent Russian
speaker, a fungi expert, a former bikini-clad circus tiger trainer,
the founder and miracle worker of "the best little zoo in the world,"
Matola, at the height of the anti-dam, pro-Scarlet Macao effort,
almost forsake the battle. She became depressed and for a while, as a
long-time Rolling Stones fan, turned her focus to a new campaign to
get the city fathers of Dartford, a small working class town near
London, to build a shrine to native sons Mick Jagger and Keith

Even with Matola at her passionate best, the campaign to stop the dam
failed, of course. With most of the economic and political power
structures of Belize supporting the pork project, and the giant
Canadian utility Fortis dead set on damming as much of the world as
possible, there was never much chance it would succeed.

Tellingly, however, Matola did win the Battle of the Garbage Dump.
Vindictive members of the government allegedly planned to put Matola
in her place by building a dump at Mile 27 of the Western Highway,
virtually next door to the Belize Zoo. After some clever maneuvering,
some of it involving Britain's Princess Anne, the government backed
down and decided to locate the egregious dump elsewhere.

One irony came too late for Barcott to include in his book. The
environmental consulting company, Tunich-Nah Consultants, headed by
José Pepe Garcia, the former Belize Audubon Society president,
conducted the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Ara Macao, the
overblown planned development on the Placencia peninsula. Ara Macao,
Spanish for Scarlet Macao, received approval to build a nearly 800
condos and villas, a marina, casino, 18-hole golf course and 400,000
sq. ft. commercial center, all this on a peninsula with no paved road
access and a population of about 2,000. The beautiful, smart red
parrots must have shuddered, as they searched for new nesting grounds
in their fast-disappearing habitat.

In the end, though, Belize is Belize.

With a population of just 315,000, about that of a small provincial
Canadian, U.S. or British city, everybody who is anybody knows
everybody else, and it's hard to stay mad. As Barcott visits Belize
for the last time in researching this book, in 2005, Matola is getting
ready to attend a party at Beer Baron Barry Bowen's Belikin
headquarters. Bowen, one of Belize's wealthiest men and the country's
political check writer extraordinaire, had helped kick Matola's butt.
Now, Barcott learned, it was time to kiss-kiss and make up. That's
Belize for you.


Lan Sluder is the founder of Belize First Magazine
(www.belizefirst.com) and the author of more than half a dozen books
on Belize, including Living Abroad in Belize and Fodor's Belize 2008.


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