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The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird Paperback – 13 Jan 2009

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Product details

  • Paperback: 313 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade; Reprint edition (13 Jan. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812973135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812973136
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,336,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J. R. Taylor on 7 April 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is mainly about politics and the history of Belize although one of the main issues is to stop a dam being built because it will render an area, where a group of Scarlet Macaws, Tapirs & other animals live, under water.
In my opinion the title is deceiving but I found the book readable
Jan x
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an insightful read; well researched and all encompassing. The book is primarily about the ecological issues of the loss of habitat of the Belize Scarlet Macaw, but in fact there is an equal balance of economic, political and social issues too, yet it is not a burdensome read, but most enjoyable.

This should be a book club recommendation.
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By Emma Haynes on 13 Aug. 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Great book, a must read if you are heading into the jungle of Belize.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 40 reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Comments from an actual Belizean-American engineer. 14 Mar. 2008
By Pauline C. Bennett - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I am a Belizean-American with an advanced degree in electrical engineering, a rare sub-species in my own right. I grew up in a family steeped in the history and politics of modern Belize -- many of the politicians named in this book are people whose careers and histories are intertwined with those of my own family. I have been to the unbelievably beautiful Belize Zoo with its amazing collection of animals and in 2004 I swam in a tributary of the Macal river with cascading pools like the one mentioned in the first chapter of the book. Belize is indeed a country blessed by God with beauty beyond its fair share and in general Belizeans jealously guard their natural resources. Belize's reputation as an eco-tourist haven is justly deserved.

Mr. Barcott has written an incredible book capturing much of the culture and spirit of Belize and its people, a gem of an introduction to the complicated country I love. I strongly recommend reading this book not just for the narrative about the dam or the eco-politics surrounding it, but also as a way of understanding the impact that technology and engineering ethics (or lack thereof) can have on a developing population with a limited or biased exposure to the facts undergirding complex technical issues. This is a narrative filled with enough double-dealing, courtroom drama, dirty tricks, quirky eccentrics, natural beauty and noble causes to keep the most jaded reader enthralled.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
The Last Flight of the Macaw 27 Feb. 2008
By Stephen Balbach - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In 1982 Sharon Matola, a feisty, curly-haired native from the rusty working-class town of Baltimore, left home for adventure - after some false starts hopping trains and training lions, she eventually landed in the green jungles of Central America where, in the tiny country of Belize (pop: 250,000), she created the first and only "zoo" (more like an animal rescue). Because of her passion for animals and the environment she earned a reputation as the 'Jane Goodall of Belize'. So it was inevitable when a corrupt Belize government wanted to build a fiscally questionable dam that would obliterate some of Belize's richest biological resources - including the unique roosting area of the beautiful but endangered Scarlet Macaw - she became the driving force behind a movement to stop powerful and shadowy forces. Bruce Barcott, an environmental journalist with Outside magazine based in Seattle Washington, heard about Matola's struggle and for a number of years followed her story as it went from a single womans crusade into an international turmoil involving Fortune 500 companies, the Canadian Government, movie stars and Englands secretive and rarely used highest court the Privy Council.

_The Last Flight_ is structured as a "non-fiction narrative", meaning there is a main character (Matola) following an evolving story (struggle to stop the dam) in which the reader is kept in suspense to find out what happens. Along the way the author imparts factual background knowledge such as: a history of Belize; Belize culture and geography; Belize wildlife; a history of dams and the environment; wildlife extinction; backgrounds on institutions like the NRDC and Englands Privy Council; how companies and environmental groups operate during disputes. In both the suspense story and factual tangents Barcott has succeeded marvelously in creating a highly readable page turner.

Rather than a black and white "man vs nature", Barcott reveals how ambiguous and complicated conservation is, often not a question of ethics but politics. This is a book about a tiny valley, an unknown woman in a country where fewer people live than most American counties. But it is a larger more important work, it is a window into the world of conservation struggles, an awareness of the Belize people, culture and geography, and most importantly a profile of Sharon whose passion and determination is an inspiration for anyone, in particular young women and men to follow their dreams and make a difference in the world.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Best Field Guide to the Real Belize. Ever. 21 April 2008
By Lan the Answer Man - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

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 local bookstore or of, 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 Macao, 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 Macao 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 Macao effort, almost forsake the battle. 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 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.


Review and Opinion by Lan Sluder
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
I could not put this book down. 23 Feb. 2008
By Scott Loveless - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I love this book, which is a strong statement coming from me, a guy who typically reads mysteries, science fiction and the occasional pulitzer winning novel. Typically I find non-fiction interesting at first but too dry and it rarely holds my interest for long. This book is a wonderful exception. I found it fascinating and informative from start to finish, it has a plotline filled with characters and events worthy of a Carl Hiaasen (One of my favorite authors) novel. I highly recommend reading The Last Flight Of The Scarlet Macaw.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Portrait of a Fighter 7 May 2008
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"At 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." The words are by Bruce Barcott, and they reflect what a lot of people feel when faced with global warming, the current destruction of species that many biologists think is a "sixth extinction crisis" (a previous one wiped out the dinosaurs), or the ruin of natural regions for profit. And yet, Barcott found a story of optimism and hope (even if they might have been eventually misplaced) when he heard about Sharon Matola, better known in her adopted country Belize as the "Zoo Lady". She has become an authority on the scarlet macaw, and led a remarkable effort against strong odds to keep the macaw's only known habitat in Belize from being flooded behind the proposed Chalillo Dam on the Macal River. Barcott tells Matola's amazing story in _The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird_ (Random House). It's a story that might have remained obscure, but it becomes an epic in the way it is told, and it is also a legal thriller as Matola and her cohorts pursue one effort after another within the Byzantine Belize legal and political system.

Matola has quite a history. After leaving a marriage by running away to the circus, she wound up in the early eighties helping to film a nature documentary in Belize. The movie featured orphaned animals, and when it was over, she had a jaguar, an ocelot, a puma, and some exotic birds, little money, and no job. What to do besides paint a sign on scrap wood saying "BELIZE ZOO"? As the nationally-known Zoo Lady, Matola has gotten the populace of Belize interested in its natural resources. There are only two hundred macaws on the Macal River where they make their nests, and a dam would not only destroy the macaws, of course, but drive out other animals like tapirs, pumas, river otters, and howler monkeys. Close evaluation of the economics of the dam indicate that it would result in higher energy rates, not lower. The geological analysis that preceded the dam's construction was full of lies. It claimed that there was granite upon which to build the dam, and there was none. The engineers even arranged to have a map of the site lose by eraser a geologic fault line that could endanger it. In Barcott's words, "the dam was a fiasco: environmentally devastating, economically unsound, geologically suspect and stinking of monopoly profiteering." In the middle of the campaign, the government released its vengeful plan to place a garbage dump adjacent to Matola's zoo, another battle she had to fight. She got the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the powerful environmental legal team in Washington, and the battle ranged through the local courts and even to the mysterious Privy Council in London. Barcott takes in each legal battle and financial tomfoolery, producing a book that has a great deal of suspense to it.

I won't spoil the suspense by telling the outcome. "The odds are against us", Matola says late in the book, and gets the answer from an environmental-law solicitor, "The odds are always against us." Matola continues at her zoo, and has taken up, among other battles, the protection and reinstatement into the wild of the endangered harpy eagle. Dams continue to be planned and built, many financed outside the nations that will hold them, and placed in third-world areas containing poor people who won't benefit, and politicians who will. Concentrating the story on Matola makes for a brilliant narrative, spangled with instructive thoughts on matters ecological, financial, and political. In summing up at the end, Barcott writes, "People like Sharon are rare and strange and sometimes aggravating... These people aren't perfect. They aren't simple heroes. They are complex human beings. And we need them. Because without them the world would be lost." Barcott's fine book gives us a deep portrait of Sharon Matola, and she gives us one more reason not to give up on humans and their interactions with their planet just yet.
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