THE BEST FIELD GUIDE TO BELIZE.
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 high-level 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 Macaw, 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 Macaw 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 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 Macaw effort, almost left the battlefield. 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 Richards.
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 Macaw, 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.