Staff Pick — Shannon: The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

Hubby and I are starting to daydream about our next vacation. While looking over travel books, and talking to friends about their recent travels, a friend gushed about his recent trip to Belize. I’m not sure if timing, a toddler or finances will allow it, but I picked up the book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird anyway.

The woman in question fighting to save the scarlet macaws is Sharon Matola, owner and director of the Belize Zoo. “The zoo exhibits 125 individual animals and hosts more than seventy thousand visitors every year – more than one-quarter of Belize’s entire population.” In the book, there is an ongoing fight between Sharon and owners of an electric company and some government officials regarding the building of a dam in an area known to be populated by species of animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, notably the scarlet macaws.  ‘To Sharon, the question of the macaw’s survival was a no brainer. “If we keep destroying habitat like this, that bird is a goner,” she told me one of the first times we met. “it’s not that tough to understand. Once it’s got no place to eat and no place to breed, it will go extinct.”’

Sharon received threats while opposing the dam –threats to her safety and to her business. The government sent notice to Sharon that they were going to build a landfill one mile away from the zoo. By showing the amount of flooding at the proposed dump site during hurricane season, the amount of drainage from the flooding into a local water source, and gaining support from Princess Anne of England during her visit to the former colony, Sharon was able to defeat the government’s plan.

There were some definite examples of hidden reports from the company building the dam,  including the report that showed how much electricity would be produced. The company claimed that some of the reports about the project contained proprietary information.  There were also some serious questions about whether the cost of the dam would be passed on to the electricity buyers and if it would really mean lower electricity rates for Belizeans. When reports by the scientists hired by the owners of the electric company agreed with the dam protesters (and said much worse than what the dam protesters feared), their reports were re-worded and released to the public in such a way as to make it sound like minimal impact.

I found the combination of the balance between politics and the environment interesting. The Canadian company building the dam and officials in the government were painting Sharon as an outsider, white person telling Belize what to do rather than acknowledging that she’s lived in Belize for 20 + years and loves the country.

The building of the dam passed with a vote of 11- 1. Then came multiple appeals and court battles still fighting the building of the dam. The dam was a go-ahead in the appeals court. The Chalillo Dam opened in November of 2005. The cost of power for the people of Belize went up in costs after the building of the dam. Sharon went on to continue her work with the zoo and take on projects such as building an art gallery in the zoo and working with the Peregrine Fund to rehabilitate harpy eagles in the region.

 If you ask Sharon why she thinks people are fascinated with birds, she answers, “They fly. We don’t. We’re jealous… They’re up there in the air, where we can’t go. They’re like sea creatures that way. We can’t see most sea creatures, though. We can look up and see birds in the sky. They go into a world we can see and yet can’t access. They go through that glass window keeping us out. They’re so fragile, yet we can’t grasp the. All those things.”

For more information about the current state of the macaws in Belize, here is the director’s message on the Belize Zoo’s website:

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird

DB 67335

Barcott, Bruce. Reading time: 11 hours, 20 minutes.
Read by Jack Fox.

Chronicles the crusade of Sharon Matola, an expatriate American who directs the Belize Zoo, to stop construction of a dam that would flood the nesting grounds of the country’s last scarlet macaws. Illuminates the economic struggles of developing nations and the conflict between environmental conservation and industrial development. 2008.