Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw--Review

What did I get myself into? This was supposed to be a straightforward non-fiction selection as a break between head-spinning magic-realism novels. I ended up being equally overwhelmed by Bruce Barcott's non-fiction account of the fight to stop the Chalillo Dam in Belize, as the international struggle over the plan to block the Macal river in inland Central America sent me running to check websites in  London, Newfoundland, Washington, D.C., and even Sierra Leone. It also left me pondering the best way to approach such a complicated tale. Do you inject yourself into the narrative? Adopt a dispassionate omniscient tone? What do you do if half of the players in such a complex case--in this case the proponents of the dam and the leaders of the Belizean government--refuse to be interviewed for their side of the story? How do you lay out the facts without having your objectivity being distorted by the very strong personalities that you end up being forced to rely upon?

I picked up "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" as a Central American choice that would also fit nicely into my "Rainbow Challenge" on Goodreads.Web Slice Gallery. I knew very little about Belize; indeed, according to Barcott, I could have just as easily added the nation to my Caribbean choices for, as he puts it, "it's firmly attached to Central America but considers itself to be a Caribbean island, like a chicken that thinks its a duck." I ended up learning a great deal about the history of Belize, of the for-profit politics that seems to drive the movers and shakers there, and of the nature of international conglomerates in general. About the Scarlet Macaw itself there was less than I would have liked: the author does make a few excursions into the Belizean interior and catches a few glimpses of the birds; this was a bit of a disappointment. There was less of the majesty of still mostly unspoiled wilderness--two thirds of the country is still jungle--and more about the machinations of men.

It's a complicated tale. To my surprise, my old pal Joey Smallwood from my Canada choice "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" turned up at the beginning of this book, and what's more, Smallwood's vague glossing-over about his inept or corrupt handling of the various contracts that he agreed  to turned out to be important in how Belize ended up getting a dam. Or maybe it wasn't that important; Barcotti seems so enamored of all the facts that he dug up that he can't resist throwing them all in, and maybe since I was thrilled to have Smallwood unexpectedly take a turn onto the stage that I can't help placing a bit more importance to him, too.  Well, how is Newfoundland's first Prime Minister so important? Well, according to Barcotti, Smallwood's inept handling of the Churchill Falls project handing most of the money--and power--over to the province of Quebec; the resulting "I'll never be hungry again" Scarlett O'Hara outcry ended up creating the Fortis Power Company,  a huge New Foundland based international organization determined never to be taken advantage of again. Or, ironically, determined to drive the same hard bargains--which to others might seem to be a callous steamrolling--that resulted in its birth to begin with.

But back to the beginning--Fortis power company doesn't even make an appearance until a quarter of the way through this book. In the attempt to untangle this international web, Barcotti decides to use the founder of the  Belize Zoo,  American born Sharon Matola, as his framework to keep his story on track. Web Slice Gallery

It's a delicate situation for a writer to be in. Despite Barcott's attempts to broaden his research base and include lawyers and authors who are supportive of Sharon's cause to stop the dam that will flood the nesting places of the Belizean Scarlet Macaw, he's still very much dependent on Ms. Matola's aid to write his book. And let's face it: for all of Sharon's good qualities, and her devotion to the animals of Belize, it can't be denied that she is a "ahem" strong personality--coming off in the book at least as being rather aggressive and capricious, with a reputation among certain Belize circles as being a bit of a crank. I don't know when Barcotti really came to realize this; for me, my perception of the zookeeper really shifted at the end of the tale, when the Privy Council Chamber of the British government was about to rule on whether the dam should go forward and Sharon, though in London with Barcotti for the ruling, seemed to lose interest in the whole matter and instead became obsessed with having the town of Dartford recognize the childhood homes of  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

But it's a long way coming to the end, though as one can see by reading Sharon Matola's postscript on the website of the Belize zoo, there is no real end to the story. There's many excursions along the way, from how being a refugee from Sierra Leone influenced Judge Abdulai Conteh's

To help me sort it all out and to keep all the characters in my head, I composed a key:

1) Colorado. University of Colorado gave the author a grant to write his book. A Denver company was flown in by the anti-dam group to contradict the findings of Fortis, the second holder of the Chalillo dam.
2) North Carolina. Duke Power, first holder of the dam site, dropped it like a hot potato when political pressure against it grew too strong.
3)Churchill Falls dam in Labrador. Source of Fortis discontent and Quebec-Newfoundland friction.
4)DC. IDBMatola.
   Headquarters of NRDC; legal environmental firm intrumental in Duke Power backing down.
5)Montreal. Legal headquarters of Fortis Power; proposed Canadian taxpayers should foot legal bills in battle of the dam.
6) Privy Council Chamber in London.( As the queen is still head of state in Belize, the government appealed to the Lords Privy Council to overturn Judge Conteh's ruling.)
7)  Natural History Museum. Hired by Fortis for support; ended up contradicting the environmental impact report.

8) Cambridge. Headquarters of Birdlife International. Belize agreed to follow their guidelines.
9) Sino-Hydro Corp. Ultimate winner of the bid to build the dam after Fortis declined to bid; won as they were able to import cheap Chinese workers. Worked on the Three Gorges Dam.
10) Mexico. Source of most of Belize's power due to tensions between Guatemala and Belize.
11) Sierra Leone. Judge Conteh's homeland. The judge made the final Belize--though not last judicial ruling--on the dam.
12) St. John's, Newfoundland. Home of the Fortis Company, second holder of the proposed dam site.

Whew! Just flipping through the highlighted parts of the book gave me a headache, but I believe I have the story straight now.

But how did it hand together as a book? I finished "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" feeling rather nonplussed .In some ways the book felt a bit too episodic in nature, and there were so many details crammed in. Sometimes it read more like a series of magazine articles, and the author was handicapped by writing the story from a geographical and cultural distance. The author never answers the question lying at the heart of the book: How much should outside sources interfere in what should be, perhaps, an internal matter? He's clearly uncomfortable with how much the outside world interfered with the matter of the Chalillo dam; perhaps that is a question that the reader must answer for himself I did have a few style issues with the book. Barcott's writing was competent and engaging, but the viewpoint often wavered between first person and omniscient in an annoying manner. I wavered between three and a half and four stars, but decided to grade upwards, as I did learn quite a bit from this book. Recommended for anyone who wants to feel more than mildly depressed over the state of the environment, or to see once again how interconnected the world is.

                                               Four Stars

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