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I f you feel a need to escape the law, elude creditors, hide assets, or shed the skin of your humdrum life, you could do worse than run away to Belize. Belize is a tiny nation tucked between Guatemala, Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. It’s firmly attached to Central America but considers itself a Caribbean island, like a chicken that thinks it’s a duck. For more than a hundred years Belize was known as British Honduras, one of the most remote outposts of the British Empire, which explains why it’s the only Latin American nation to embrace English as its official language.
It’s difficult to overstate the smallness of the place. Imagine a country the size of Massachusetts with the population of Corpus Christi, Texas. Give it an army of seven hundred soldiers and a seat in the United Nations and you start to get an idea of Belize. Centuries ago more than one million Maya populated this part of Central America. Today fewer than three hundred thousand Belizeans spread themselves among the country’s river towns and tin-shack villages. Two-thirds of the country is covered by jungle.
Belize goes unnoticed by the rest of the world, and over the years the country has parlayed its obscurity into an attractive asset. For those shipwrecked on the shoals of life, Belize offers a new beginning. The country teems with adventurous refugees who’ve set up shop in the middle of the Central American jungle. British innkeepers, Mennonite farmers, Chinese shopkeepers, Lebanese entrepreneurs, American missionaries, Canadian aid workers, and Dutch scientists live peacefully alongside the nation’s longer- established residents, the Garifuna artists, Maya cacao growers, Mestizo plantation managers, and Creole politicians who make up the majority of the country’s population. Belize draws the eccentric, the madcap, and the downright mad. In this colorful human menagerie it takes some doing to stand out, but there is one woman who manages to delight, enrage, captivate, frustrate, and inspire her fellow Belizeans more than anyone else. She’s the proprietor of the Belize Zoo. Her name is Sharon Matola.
Sharon shares her office with a three-legged jaguar named Angel. When the screen door bangs, Angel limps up a cleated ramp that connects the jaguar habitat to the office, a plywood shack on stilts. When she sees Sharon, Angel rolls over and stretches like a dog wanting its belly scratched. Sharon will toss Angel a piece of chicken through the wire fence that separates them. The jaguar catches the meat in her jaws with a clop. Visitors to Sharon’s office often ask to pet Angel, which Sharon discourages. “Never pet a jaguar,” she once told me, “unless you’re willing to feed her your hand.”
Sharon speaks fluent Russian and once worked as a lion tamer for a traveling Mexican circus. She sings to wild jaguars to soothe them. As a young woman she married a dentist and lived in a tidy house in Iowa City. When she grew restless she started hopping freight trains to Florida. She once smuggled a spider monkey across the Mexican border by swimming the Rio Grande with the animal balanced on her head. She’s an expert in mycology, the study of fungi, and is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on both the scarlet macaw and the Baird’s tapir, a three-toed ungulate with a ridiculous floppy snout. Most of that knowledge she picked up while walking through the Central American jungle carrying little more than a machete.
Sharon is more at home in the jungle than most of us are in our mother’s kitchen. An American by birth, she’s spent the past quarter century in the raw tropical landscape of Central America. In the fall of 1982 she left the United States to work as an assistant on a nature documentary being filmed in Belize. At the end of the shoot, the director left her in possession of a jaguar, two macaws, a ten-foot boa constrictor, and seventeen other animals. “Once you domesticate wild animals, they can’t care for themselves in the wild,” Sharon told me. “If you turn them out they’ll starve.” So she painted a sign that said belize zoo and stuck it beside the lonely road that runs from Belize City to the Guatemalan border. People came.
Today the zoo exhibits 125 individual animals and hosts more than seventy thousand visitors every year—more than one-quarter of Belize’s entire population. It is the country’s most visited tourist attraction and one of the region’s most prestigious scientific research stations. Belizean children idolize Sharon Matola. She invites them to the zoo and holds a tarantula in her palm, wraps a boa around her leg, and speaks to April the tapir as her friend. In the eyes of children she lives a magical life, padding through her own zoo like Willy Wonka strolling the chocolate factory floor. Sharon often buzzes through the countryside on a Kawasaki 650 motorcycle, and when children see her coming they jump and wave and shout her name: Zoo Lady!
I met Sharon in 2002 on a reporting trip to Belize. Ari Hershowitz put me on to her. Hershowitz is a scruffy, bearded guy I met years ago while writing a story about a gray whale nursery in Mexico. A multinational corporation wanted to build a salt factory in a calving lagoon. Hershowitz, an organizer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), was one of the people who stopped it. Over the years we kept in touch. One day I called and found him in an expansive mood. He had a new project. An international energy company wanted to build a dam that would flood one of the last great sections of unbroken jungle in Central America. “It’s a small dam but the damage would be enormous,” he said. “This river valley is like a cradle of life. It’s filled with jaguars, tapirs, scarlet macaws. They’d all be wiped out by the dam.”
“Where’s the river?” I asked.
I fumbled for an atlas. “Belize?” I said, flipping to the index. “What part of Belize?”
“Middle of the country, about ten miles from the Guatemalan border,” Hershowitz said. “Seriously, you should go check it out. It’s a two-hour flight from Houston.” He paused. “It’s a former British colony. Everybody speaks English.”
“Who’s fighting the dam?”
“We’re working with a coalition of groups down there, but there’s one woman who’s spearheading things. Her name’s Sharon Matola. She’s kind of the Doctor Doolittle of Belize.”
I reached for a pen. “Any other interesting characters?”
Hershowitz chuckled. “How much time you got?”
Later that week I made a few phone calls to Belize, which is an experience not unlike playing the slots. You dial and dial, and once in a while the call goes through. Everyone I talked to either loved or despised Sharon Matola. “She’s our Joan of Arc,” one woman told me. Another man practically spat when he mentioned “that woman.” A little online research revealed that the Belizean newspapers were equally divided. Some praised the Zoo Lady and her anti-dam crusade. Others blamed her for all of the nation’s ills. Banks wouldn’t lend Belize money because of Sharon Matola. Children went hungry because of Sharon Matola. The Belize Times, the Belizean government mouthpiece, called her a modern-day colonialist and a traitor to the nation. A government spokesman labeled her “an enemy of the people.”
It was that phrase—“an enemy of the people”—more than anything else, I think, that convinced me to fly to Belize and track down the Zoo Lady. Over the next six years I would come to appreciate Sharon Matola in all her complexity. She is a strange and enchanting woman. She can display more tenacity, courage, generosity, and love than seems possible for one person. She can be warm, goofy, and funny. She can also be impossibly stubborn and self-righteous. I didn’t know that at the beginning. All I knew was that if any government hated and feared a woman that much, I wanted to meet her.
According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN),* the most respected scientific organization tracking species extinction, one in every four mammal species and one in eight bird species face a high risk of extinction in the near future. Plants and animals are
*Although its full name is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the IUCN is commonly known as the World Conservation Union.
disappearing at a rate at least a hundred times the planet’s natural, or background, extinction rate. The problem has become known as the “sixth extinction crisis” because it follows previous waves of species disappearance in the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Those extinctions happened over geologic time. This one is happening in the blink of an eye.
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 forces driving the sixth extinction possess so much money and power that fighting them requires a willing suspension of disbelief. The odds are so long that if you look at them too hard you’ll lose your mind. Every once in a while, though, I meet a rare subspecies of human who offers hope. It’s almost never a politician or a scientist. It’s almost always a woman without credentials. They’re often self-taught researchers who become experts through years of hard experience and close observation. They’re the ones who scoop up a jar of brown water from a ditch and ask impertinent questions about what’s in it. Because they don’t know protocol they barge in and do what nobody else has the courage to do. They don’t ask permission. When government authorities demand to know what gives them the right to speak, they don’t flash advanced degrees. They straighten their shoulders and say, I have the right because I walk on this earth and I breathe this air.
My first phone conversation with Sharon fell short of dazzling. I caught her on her way out of town, and over a crackly connec- tion she gave me the quick-and-dirty info most reporters re- quire. We agreed to talk later at length. Weeks passed. We didn’t talk. And then one day she called back and said she was going into the field in a few weeks to track the migration of scarlet macaws across the Maya Mountain divide. “I can’t take you on the whole trip but you can come along on the first few days if you want,” she said. “We’ll be going up the river that would be destroyed by the dam.”
“What should I bring?” I asked.
She thought for a second. “Bug repellent,” she said.
The Chalillo Dam was a proposed 150-foot-high concrete impoundment dam that would block the Macal River, the main artery draining the western slope of the Maya Mountains. The dam would produce six megawatts of electricity, enough to power at least six thousand households. A deep reservoir would rise behind the dam and turn twelve miles of the Macal and six miles of its tributary, the Raspaculo, into a bathtub. Drowned in that tub would be a valley teeming with tapirs, jaguars, peccaries, and scarlet macaws. The macaws would feel the brunt of it, according to the dam’s opponents. A rare subspecies nests in trees near the river and nowhere else in Belize. Proponents of the dam argued that the birds would simply make new nests in trees above the floodline.
The corporation developing the dam was Fortis, a power company based in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1999, Fortis purchased Belize’s electrical utility, Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), as part of the Belizean government’s privatization program. Fortis planned to spend $25 million to build the dam.
I called Sharon from an airport pay phone. She was too busy to see me. “I’m showing Prince Andrew around the zoo,” she said. She wasn’t kidding. Members of the royal family sometimes stop by during tours of the former colony. “Why don’t you come by tomorrow morning?”
I made my way by rental car to Belize City, the nation’s largest city and notoriously dangerous cultural capital. The sign on the outskirts of town read “belize city, population 70,000: working for a better city.” Founded 350 years ago in a mosquito-ridden swamp near the mouth of the Belize River, the city exists because seventeenth-century sea merchants found it a convenient spot to anchor while loading timber. Today Belize City is a teeming town of stilted wood houses pinched together along narrow broken streets just inches above sea level. The land is so saturated that the dead lie entombed in surface vaults at the edge of town.
I turned on the radio. “No suspect has been identified in the pedal-by shooting that left one man dead in Belize City yester- day. . . .” A string of soccer scores followed, and then a public service announcement. “The Belize dollar is strong,” declared the announcer. “Show your pride. Purchase your goods in Belizean dollars and exchange American currency at the official rate of two Belizean dollars for one American.” There are few things in this world that can be called dead certainties. One is that when the government starts running ads boasting of the local dollar’s strength, the local dollar is about as mighty as a kitten in a river.
I switched off the radio and took in the scene around me. Uniformed schoolchildren walked along the curb. Stately black women crossed the street holding umbrellas like shields against the sun. Shirtless men with long dreadlocks wove their bicycles among streetside fruit vendors. Deep gutters and open canals crosshatched the city, filled with turbid water and menacing, well-muscled crabs.
The streets of Belize City are laid out like a tangle of snakes. Most are unmarked. There is no commercially produced map, although a crude letter-size rendering of the city’s layout circulates around the city like tourist samizdat. If you are lucky enough to acquire a blurred photocopy, you may learn to guard it as you do your passport.
I cut across a canal, caught a whiff of its stink, and turned left, scanning for a street sign. An old man with gray dreadlocks wandered into the middle of the street, barked something hostile, then continued on his way. I tugged at my shirt, sodden from the tropical heat. Another turn. Didn’t I just cross this bridge?
At an abandoned Texaco station I approached a man squatting beside a display of carved wooden dolphins on a filthy blanket. “I’m trying to find the Chateau Caribbean,” I said. “I wonder if you—”
“Where you goin’, mon?”
“The Chateau Caribbean.”
He cocked his head and squinted at me.
“No, no. Don’ know it, mon.”
I glanced at the map. “It looks like it’s near the Radisson.”
“Radi-sown?” he said, and grunted. The Radisson Fort George is the only business-class hotel in Belize City. In a country where a government job pays twenty dollars a day, tips from a tourist’s pocket can support an entire family. The Radisson supports a micro-economy of taxi drivers, tour guides, diving charters, and folk artists. Everyone knows where the Radisson is.
“Yeh mon, shtret down heah, keep di rye, you see di weh,” he said. Belize’s first language is English. Belize City’s first language is an English dialect so thoroughly mashed with Creole that it’s difficult to understand.
The Chateau Caribbean was a once-grand seaside hotel that glory had long since abandoned. One of the b’s had fallen off its sign. Its pink paint curled. Inside, nothing moved. Not the bellhop, not the ceiling fans, not the air.
“Credit machine not working today,” said the desk clerk. She was a heavyset woman who, like the dolphin salesman, avoided direct eye contact. “You can pay cash?”
“Sure,” I said, unzipping my sweat-soaked money belt. “Belizean or U.S.?”
As the evening sun fell into the sea, I strolled around a peninsula jutting into the warm Caribbean Sea. Above me frigate birds spread their great wings and rode the wind to distant homes in the cayes, the tiny offshore islands that form the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef. Belize has a strange relationship with the sea. In proclamation and lore, Belizeans are forever declaring their love for the Caribbean. In Belize City, which is dominated by the descendants of black Caribs, to be Belizean is to be Caribbean. The national anthem hails Belize as the “land of the free by the Carib Sea.” Yet when it comes to the sea itself, the Caribbean is merely the place where the city ends. It’s less a shoreline than a giant curb. Again and again I tried to walk the land’s margin and failed. The sidewalk disintegrated into jagged concrete. A skim of plastic bags, used condoms, and empty bottles floated on the tide. Foamy gutter runoff streamed around breakwater boulders. I kept to the shore until I was stopped by a fence topped with razor wire. I cut back to the hotel through a rusty playground.
Outside the Chateau Caribbean, a column of smoke caught my eye. It was a fire in the cayes. I walked to a nearby pier, where an old Creole man stood staring out at the water.
“What do you suppose is burning out there?” I asked.
“Where?” he said.
“Out there in the cayes. The smoke.”
He looked to where I was pointing. After a moment he turned to me and said, “No smoke, sir. They clouds.”
“No, no. Not the puffy white things. Look there. Black smoke coming up. See where it hits the pressure layer and spreads south?”
He looked again. He frowned. It was as if he had been trained to deny evidence of calamity for fear of scaring the tourists.
“No fire,” he insisted. “Clouds.”
Back at the Chateau, I rinsed off the day’s sweat and fell into bed. In the middle of the night I rose from a fitful sleep and switched on the light. The room stayed dark. I tried another light. It didn’t work either. I turned over and went back to sleep. In the morning I awoke to find both lights burning.