The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw
The book’s title, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, may be somewhat misleading since the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is neither endangered nor threatened. It is widespread in Central and South America, and it is not on the verge of extinction. Author Bruce Barcott knows that fact and says so, although he also makes the point that the Belizean subspecies (Ara macao cyanoptera) is endangered in some ranking systems. That is the bird about which he is writing, and this dual classification introduces the question of whether subspecies should be considered for protection under endangered-species legislation or whether such laws should concern only species. In response to that question, Barcott explores some related aspects of biological taxonomy (the classification and naming of animals and plants). He employs a strategy similar to this throughout the book. He is telling a story, but when the story line comes to a topic he thinks needs explanation, he interrupts to fill the reader in on the tangential topic, which is always interesting and important.
Working under the assumption that this subspecies is worthy of special conservation efforts, the book details the attempt of an American woman to block construction of a dam that would flood the valley in which the overwhelming majority of the scarlet macaws in Belize live. Sharon Matola runs a zoo in Belize, and, esoteric as it may seem, the taxonomic question posed above becomes a real problem for her. She uses the local subspecies’s status to argue against the dam, arguing that you cannot flood the only habitat in Belize that supports this endangered subspecies. Stan Marshall, chief executive officer (CEO) of Fortis, the Canadian company that wants to build the dam, challenges her on the basis of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red Data Book, which considers the species and not the subspecies. This publication, a gold standard in endangered-species listings, recognizes the scarlet macaw as a widespread and abundant species, and so it is not one requiring special treatment in planning a dam or other environment-disrupting activity.
Barcott describes Matola as a maverick who is not afraid to rock the boat, even when it is clear that she is the one most likely to be spilled overboard. She chooses to enter the fight over the dam to be built on the Macal River, and her opposition triggers the cascade of events explored in the book. Barcott’s exploration involves economic as well as ecologic problems and the trade-offs inherent in questions such as the effects of dams and other situations in which conservation and economics seem at loggerheads. These questions are particularly troublesome in developing countries such as Belize. Barcott also explores the political intrigue that often accompanies such problems, wherever they occur.
In setting the stage, Barcott outlines the history of Belize (formerly British Honduras) and makes a point of describing the resentment that natives of Belize hold against the British for the way they stripped the natural resources from the country and left nothing in exchange. Belize was the last Latin American country to achieve independence, one that is still incomplete in some ways. This resentment extends to foreigners in general, which made it impossible for Matola (a citizen of the United States) to lead a grassroots opposition to the dam. It also weakened the impact of Jacob Scherr and Ari Hershowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as they joined in the fight against the dam. Tony Garel, a native Belizean who worked at the zoo, and others tried to fill the native-leadership role in Matola’s place.
In keeping with his proclivity to fill in the background for his story, Barcott outlines the history of dams and dam building, including a historical sketch of the North American dam-building era. In the “Epilogue,” he compares the story he tells in the book with John Muir’s attempt to save Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park from a dam. He suggests that the massive development of dams was not a good thing, because dams often do not pay for themselves (even in strictly economic terms), and they often collect silt so rapidly that they become worthless and fall into disuse or must be restored, at great expense, in just a few years. Barcott’s bottom line: Dams kill rivers. Still, dams have been built for many different reasons: for flood control, for hydroelectric power, for a reliable water supply for human consumption and irrigation, and...
(The entire section is 1865 words.)