The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird
By Bruce Barcott
Random House; 315 pages; $25.95

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Miami Herald 3/2/08

As the reality of waning resources and climate change sets in, many people likely echo Outside magazine contributing editor Bruce Barcott’s admission that “[a]t times the earth’s fate seems so dire and inexorable that I’m tempted to throw up my hands and say to hell with it.” But though we persevere, in his new book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw,” Barcott reminds us that there are still too few people with the courage of Sharon Matola, an American expatriate who risked her livelihood to the save Belize’s vanishing population of scarlet macaws.

The eccentric, often divisive director of the Belize Zoo, Matola spent six years attempting to stop the Belize government from building the Chalillo Dam and flooding the Macal Valley, a scarlet macaw nesting place that Matola dubs “a Noah’s ark for all the endangered species driven out of the rest of Central America.” Her fight began with a simple letter of protest, where most people would have stopped, then led to the government labeling her an enemy of the people and the involvement of the NRDC, and ended with a rare appeal to the London Privy Council (Belize’s head of state is still Queen Elizabeth II).

Buoyed by a dynamic cast of characters—from Matola, whose quirks (like sharing her office with a three-legged jaguar) outdid Belize’s already “colorful human menagerie,” to Belizean finance minister Ralph Fonseca, whom Barcott vibrantly describes as possessing “the cunning of Iago and the silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock”—and a plot so many-layered and dramatic that readers will need to remind themselves it’s a true account, Barcott’s narrative achieves both the depth of a case study and the accessible intimacy of a short feature. Throughout, his relaxed, lucid writing and inventive descriptions keep readers on the side of Matola and the birds, such as rendering the macaw as a colorful chicken that “sounds like one of nature’s chain-smokers, their cry a throaty, blaring rrrra.”

The book weaves facilely back and forth between the chronology of Matola’s story and uncovering the intricate plait of issues surrounding it, including Belize’s increasing electricity needs, extinction, the history of dams, environmental impact statements, and utility privatization (Belize sold theirs after taking out an ad in The Economist)—all while deftly integrating implications of the political history between Belize, England and Guatemala, current corruption, colonial grudges, and citizen apathy. Though some sections suffer from repetition, Barcott’s reminders may aid some in navigating the web of this protracted battle, which he explicitly supports throughout his first person account.

The fight to stop the Chalillo Dam is just one of the increasingly difficult choices people everywhere have to make as we learn that preserving the environment for other species may actually be a tactical choice for sustaining human life as well. And though in the end the Belize government was allowed to act on its own and the dam was completed in 2005, Matola’s story is powerful proof that individuals—even by writing just one letter—can make a difference and engender change and action.

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