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Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
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0

A-The Last Flight of the Scarlet MacawSharon Matola arrived in Belize in the 1980s as the assistant to a filmmaker producing a documentary about the Central American rain forest. She fell in love with the country and decided to stay, soon founding a popular zoo and becoming an expert on local wildlife. In 2002, the Belizean government announced its plans for a hydroelectric dam that would flood the Macal Valley, the only known natural habitat of the endangered scarlet macaw. Matola protested the dam, but since she was an American, her opposition was seen as colonial oppression, and she was designated an enemy of the people. Despite venomous criticism and harassment, Matola refused to give up. She enlisted the Natural Resource Defense Council as an ally and appealed her case all the way to the London Privy Council.
Random House. 313 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400062934

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With a plot so multilayered and dramatic that readers will need to remind themselves it’s a true account, the narrative achieves the depth of a case study and the accessible intimacy of a short feature. Throughout, Barcott’s relaxed, lucid writing and inventive descriptions … place readers firmly on the side of Matola and the birds." Christine Thomas

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"No, it doesn’t sound thrilling (which is doubtless why the publisher kept the word ‘dam’ out of the title), but Barcott … makes it so, mashing up adventure travel, biography and nature writing in a steamy climate of corruption and intrigue." Elizabeth Royte

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"This fascinating account of the resulting battle touches upon greed, corruption, and the legacy of colonialism. While the outcome is sobering, there’s a glimmer of hope for imperiled species everywhere in feisty irritants like Matola." Tim Purtell

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A seasoned journalist, Barcott ably handles this wide-ranging, multifaceted story. Employing novelistic scene-setting, pithy detail and crisp dialogue, he covers cumbersome legal hurdles, arcane international legalities and raucous public hearings with the graceful ease of a long-distance runner." Tim McNulty

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Gregory McNamee

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3 of 5 Stars
"Barcott does a good job detailing such a complex story, but the effectiveness of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw is hampered by a series of inconsistencies. The writer seems to have never met a narrative detour he does not want to take for several pages, sidetrips on such subjects as the history of dams that may be informative but stall the story’s drive." John Marshall

Critical Summary

Contributing editor to Outside magazine and author Bruce Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier [1997]) has constructed a gripping and suspenseful account of one woman’s crusade against corrupt foreign governments and multinational corporations to save the habitat of an endangered bird. Barcott’s simple and eloquent prose, vivid descriptions, and ability to render the most complicated business deals and legal concepts in clear layman’s terms allow him to tame this unwieldy tale, which has unexpected twists and turns. The biggest point of divergence? Most critics found Barcott’s many narrative tangents informative, interesting, and even integral to the plot, while others called them tedious and distracting. Though the Chalillo Dam was completed in 2005, Matola’s story proves that one person can make a difference. (The jury is still out on the fate of the scarlet macaws.)