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ENVIRONMENT

Flying Into The Face Of Danger

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Reviewed by Gregory McNamee
Sunday, March 2, 2008

THE LAST FLIGHT OF THE SCARLET MACAW

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One Woman's Fight To Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird

By Bruce Barcott

Random House. 313 pp. $26

There are many good reasons not to build dams. Some dams, moored in uncooperative soil, crack and burst. Some silt up to the point of uselessness. Many have the effective life of a trailer home, especially ones built to sketchy specifications in the Third World. Most do terrible damage to the rivers and streams they are blocking; the larger ones, such as central China's Three Gorges Dam, do terrible damage to whole regions. And, thanks to climate change and overuse, at venues such as Lake Mead behind Boulder Dam there is increasingly less water to hold back.

Yet, for all the science that proves their harm, dams are still built around the globe, monuments to the sort of illusory progress that the World Bank and the IMF like to fund. Environmental journalist Bruce Barcott's Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, whose very title speaks volumes, tells the tangled story of one of them.

The dam that Barcott examines began in 2002 as a modest proposal born of readily available dollars, euros, yen and yuan. Called the Chalillo Dam, it would rise only 150 feet -- on the small side, as such structures go -- to block the Macal River flowing down the western slopes of the Maya Mountains in Belize. A hinterland in a multi-ethnic nation of about 300,000 people, the area was little settled and on the road to nowhere.

The dam would produce electricity for Belize's underdeveloped grid, augmenting the country's major electricity-generating river, which inconveniently runs dry each year at the height of the tourist season. It would generate, too, a little wealth for a few foreigners and the upper reaches of what Barcott depicts as a singularly corrupt government.

Belize is the kind of place that attracts people who would rather not have their whereabouts or pasts known. The book's hero has an improbable resume that fits the country well. She is Sharon Matola, an American who "speaks fluent Russian and once worked as a lion tamer for a traveling Mexican circus," having first run away from an apparently uninteresting marriage in the States. She is a mycologist, a filmmaker, an autodidact, a motorcyclist and a fighter with "a rugged beauty that hadn't deserted her in middle age." (Middle-agers everywhere might prefer a less backhanded compliment, but so it goes.)

Matola also directs the Belize Zoo, and she long ago ran afoul of government officials committed to development at the expense of the country's natural riches, including one of the last major unbroken portions of Central American rainforest.

That stretch of jungle lay just where the dam was to go. And though its impounded waters would not rise very high, the lake behind Chalillo Dam would inundate the habitat of jaguars, tapirs, mountain lions and a rare subspecies of scarlet macaw that "nests in trees near the river and nowhere else." Proponents of the dam insisted that the animals would move elsewhere, and that the birds would just build their nests a few branches higher or a few trees farther from the water.

Matola knew better, and she set to work organizing opposition to the dam while trying to arrange sanctuary for the creatures who would be displaced. She made formidable enemies among Belize's moneyed and powerful, even though a few government ministers and functionaries quietly sympathized.

Barcott's account of the fight that followed is nearly encyclopedic, sometimes to the point of overwhelming the reader with details on the history of dams, the geology of rivers, Caribbean piracy, offshore banking, the complex business of endangered-species listings and kindred and not-so-kindred matters. Every bit of detail counts, however, as his story meanders to its close. The journey includes a heartbreaking stop before the Privy Council in London, Belize having been a British colony and still subject to a touch of influence from the motherland, even if, as one activist remarks, the Belizean government viewed the Law Lords as "the white guys in England telling the black guys in Belize whether they can turn the lights on or not."

As for the outcome, it is not spoiling the story, I hope, to say that Sharon Matola has had to turn to another enterprise: protecting the endangered harpy eagle. Happily, she is alive, despite all the enemies she has made. So are a few scarlet macaws, against all the odds. And another imperfectly engineered dam now stands in a remote corner of the undeveloped world. It's an old story, but one to which Barcott brings a fresh, urgent view. *

Gregory McNamee is the author of "Gila: The Life and Death of an American River" and many other books.


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