By Tim Purtell
Not even Hollywood could invent Sharon Matola. The plucky American arrived in Belize in the '80s, founded a popular zoo, and became an expert on the scarlet macaw, an increasingly rare rainbow-colored parrot. When the Belizean government proposed erecting a dam in pristine macaw habitat, she leapt to the bird's defense. This fascinating account of the resulting battle touches upon greed, corruption, and the legacy of colonialism. While the outcome is sobering, there's a glimmer of hope for imperiled species everywhere in feisty irritants like Matola. Grade: A-
The New York Post
By Billy Heller
February 3, 2008
Take a rare, colorful bird in third-world tropical locale, add an American military veteran expat, mix in an electric company, a $30-million damn project and a host of characters and you get Barcott's eco-friendly story of Sharon Matola, who runs the Belize Zoo in that Central American country, and has been battling the dam which will flood the natural habitat of a subspecies of the Scarlet Macaw. It's partly Hiassen-esque, but real life.
Set in the jungles of the small Central American country of Belize, this well-crafted tale profiles Sharon Matola, a circus performer–turned–zoo owner who takes on the Belizean government and corporate world in a campaign to save her country’s few remaining scarlet macaws. Although not threatened globally, these spectacular large, red, yellow, and blue parrots are on the way out in Mesoamerica. Outside contributor Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain) writes knowledgeably of the mavericks and eccentric characters attracted to Belize, its history, its idiosyncratic, often corrupt infrastructure, and its social and ecological makeup. Matola—outspoken, abrasive, fearless, and obdurate—opposes a proposed dam that would flood a priceless river valley thronging with macaws, tapirs, and jaguars.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with the Free Lib. of Philadelphia In a world where the survival of one in eight bird species is questionable, Barcott’s chronicle of environmental degradation—and protection—is germane, informative, and engaging. Offering a literate lesson in the interconnectedness of the Third World, the environment, and developed nations, it is highly recommended for environmental collections.
by Nancy Bent
February 1, 2008
Belize is a small Central American country, justifiably famous for its dense forestation. Sharon Matola is
an expatriate American, proprietor of the Belize zoo, the country’s most visited attraction and a scientific research station. The scarlet macaw is a stunning parrot, threatened with extinction throughout Central America (Belize’s population hovers around 200). Fortis, an international energy company, wanted to build a dam that would flood one of Belize’s most teeming river valleys, home to jaguars, tapirs, and a rare subspecies of scarlet macaw. Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain, 1997) brings these four elements together in a riveting account of one woman’s fight to save one of the last bastions of an endangered species, as Matola takes on a powerful corporation and the government of her adopted country. Accompanying Matola as she studied the birds in their imperiled forest home, cared for the animals at her zoo, and fought the good fight, Barcott writes of international politics, ecology and endangered species, and human relations with equal facility. This real page-turner of narrative nonfiction is hard to put down.
The Seattle Times
"Macaw": One woman's fight to save the world's most beautiful bird
By Tim McNulty
Special to The Seattle Times
Sharon Matola, the "Zoo Lady" of Belize, is an unlikely environmental hero. A one-time Iowa housewife, she trained in jungle survival with the Air Force, rode freights to Florida to study animal behavior and apprenticed to a Romanian tiger tamer. Later she worked as a circus dancer (with tigers) in Mexico. In the early 1980s, she helped film a nature documentary in Belize. At the end of the shoot, she inherited 20 exotic jungle animals, and the Belize Zoo was born.
A quarter-century later, Matola is a widely respected authority on the scarlet macaw and other tropical species. Her zoo is among the most popular tourist attractions in Belize. And she is successfully restoring harpy eagles and other threatened species to the Belize jungle.
Matola is also known among conservationists for her remarkable effort to save the scarlet macaw's only known habitat in Belize from inundation behind a large hydroelectric dam.
In "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw," Seattle writer Bruce Barcott ("The Measure of a Mountain") has written a gripping account of a single woman's dogged campaign — one that took on a government, an international energy conglomerate and the power structure of her adopted country — to save a rare and beautiful bird.
The scarlet macaw, in Barcott's words, "looks like a creature dreamed up by Dr. Seuss." It is a social, intelligent, wildly multicolored parrot "the size of a housecat." The bird is somewhat plentiful in the jungles of South America, but the northern subspecies that inhabits Central America is becoming increasingly rare due to habitat destruction.
Scarlet macaws have disappeared entirely from El Salvador. Mexico has fewer than 100. Belize and neighboring Guatemala each have about 200. All the Belize birds nest along the Macal River, the place Canada's Fortis Inc. targeted for flooding behind its Chalillo Dam.
A seasoned journalist, Barcott ably handles this wide-ranging, multifaceted story. Employing novelistic scene-setting, pithy detail and crisp dialogue, he covers cumbersome legal hurdles, arcane international legalities and raucous public hearings with the graceful ease of a long-distance runner.
From the start, Matola's plight is a mission improbable. She's an American, for one thing. Her opposition to the dam is framed by proponents as another example of colonial oppression. She is condemned by government officials, excoriated in the press. Even with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, she is heavily outgunned financially, legally and politically. In the midst of her campaign, she has to fight the vindictive placement of a municipal dump next door to her zoo.
Barcott recounts every skirmish, backroom deal and falsified report. He introduces a rogues' gallery of political and corporate players. He brings this poor, postcolonial country, "a black hole for odd foundations, little religious sects, and strange people," vividly to life. His investigation into the financial shenanigans, blatant profiteering and corruption behind the dam project is dizzying in its detail.
On one level, this project dramatizes the social costs resulting from the 1990s rash of privatizing public resources in developing countries. Energy, water and transportation costs spiral upward for populations least able to afford them.
Even more vivid is the light this story casts on other third-world development projects that destroy biodiversity, do little to benefit mostly poor populations and line the pockets of government officials and Enron-like multinationals.
Through tough reporting, colorful travel writing and a touch of natural history, Barcott has elevated an obscure environmental struggle to epic status. In doing so, he dramatizes the signal issue of species diversity in a rapidly globalizing world. And he celebrates the heroic and unsung efforts of those "rare and strange and sometimes aggravating" people who work tirelessly to preserve it.
Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain) relates the dramatic and heart-rending story of one woman’s struggle to save the scarlet macaw in the tiny country of Belize. Sharon Matola, an eccentric American who directs the Belize Zoo, learned in 1999 that a Canadian power company planned to build a dam that would destroy the habitat of the 200 scarlet macaws remaining in Belize. Helped by native Belizeans and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Matola mounted a six-year campaign against the dam, undaunted by government officials who branded her an enemy of the state and threatened to destroy her zoo by locating a new national garbage dump next to it—a vindictive act halted only when Princess Anne of Great Britain, which gives Belize millions in aid, planned to speak out against it. But the combined forces of a determined corporation and a corrupt government were unrelenting, even after it was revealed that the power company’s geological studies of the site were faulty and the dam could put human lives at stake. Barcott’s compelling narrative is suspenseful right up to the last moment.
A sharp account of an eccentric woman’s efforts to save the last 200 scarlet macaws in Belize.
Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, 1997)—a contributing editor at Outside magazine, where this book began as an article—takes readers deep into Belize, a former British colony between Mexico and Guatemala noted for its lush wildlife, English-speaking refugees and oddballs and quiet government corruption. The protagonist is middle-aged Sharon Matola, an American-born former lion tamer who came to Belize in 1982 to work on a nature documentary and remained to establish the Belize Zoo, a home for orphaned and outcast animals. The “Zoo Lady,” who shares her office with a three-legged jaguar, earned the Belize government’s ire in 1999 when she opposed plans to build a small dam in the remote Macal River Valley. Designed to generate much-needed electricity, it would have destroyed the nesting grounds of the nation’s remaining macaws. Barcott details Matola’s anti-dam campaign, which began with letters to officials and newspapers and included protests in Newfoundland (the base for the dam’s owners) and a legal battle that was decided by the Privy Council in London. While Belize officials tried to stop her by proposing to build a new garbage dump adjacent to her beloved zoo (she defeated that project), Matola pressed her anti-dam campaign with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Along the way, Barcott explores dam-building, species extinction and the history of the charismatic—but not endangered—macaws. For all her efforts—including revelations of geological deceptions in the dam planning—Matola lost the battle, and the Chalillo Dam, commissioned in 2005, put the macaw nests under water. Matola vows to keep fighting on behalf of wildlife; she is currently working to bring the harpy eagle back to Belize.
An engrossing but sad account of a brave and quirky champion of nature.