On a foggy, bleak day in January, I step inside a dark and dripping room full of moving machinery. Two turbines spin rapidly in front of me. If I were to step just a few feet closer, I would share the fate of the many of the fish caught in these turbines as they attempt to swim about their home of the Macal River. There are shiny black spills all about the floor, dirty cloths plugging up leaky pipes, and a constant thrumming and clanging noise making it impossible to be heard. This is the Chalillo Dam. Just being inside the infamous gray wall of concrete so haplessly strewn across the misty Macal River put many of the things I’ve been learning about for the past few months into perspective for me.
By now, you’re probably wondering why the Chalillo Dam matters. As part of our preparation for Belize, my class read a book called The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott. It was about the long legal battle that took place between wealthy corporations looking for an easy profit and locals and environmentalists who knew the dam would have far-reaching consequences for the people, wildlife, and various habitats connected to the watershed. To make a long story short, the locally endangered scarlet macaw birds used to nest in the Upper Raspaculo River Valley, which is where the dam’s reservoir has inundated miles of riparian forest. The valley is no longer much of a valley. A few corrupt politicians coupled with profit-driven corporations and the recent energy privatization in Belize means that no matter how important this habitat is to an endangered species, in addition to other threatened animals such as the jaguar, groups of tapirs, pacas, white-collared peccaries, and others, the dam takes priority. So here it stands today, half of it having been built on weak sedimentary rock, half of it on granite, and with a fault line running right underneath the structure. All the corporation had to do was pay the right (/wrong?) geologist so as to get the go-ahead to build. These issues could potentially spell disaster for people living near the Macal, and there is no warning system if a break were to occur. And oddly enough, the company cannot be held legally or financially responsible if something were to happen. There is also the sediment-free nature of the Macal to contend with, which means larger, more violent floods when it rains. The river is not safe to swim in like it was prior to the dam, nor is it safe to consume the fish from it, due to increased mercury content inevitably caused by biomass decay from the reservoir. And finally, the scarlet macaws’ numbers have been declining, and some scientists think that they’ll be locally extirpated within two generations. There are many more controversies I did not mention concerning the dam, but you’ll have to read the book or visit this site: http://www.belizezoo.org/director-messages/life-after-last-flight.html to find out more.
Given the rarity of the scarlet macaw and the ongoing habitat destruction and poaching here in Belize, I was thrilled to be able to find a flock of eight of them perched on an old tree! As our bus rounded the final pot-holed turn on our way to a secret part in the forest, I glimpsed a brilliant blue- and gold-feathered wing curving gracefully into its bright crimson-colored body. I jumped excitedly out of the bus and proceeded to photograph the lovely flock for over an hour. I was exceedingly lucky – my sleeping quarters were located right beneath the area where the flock feeds, socializes, and sleeps. One thing I quickly learned – these are noisy creatures! I spent hour after hour watching, drawing, and photographing these birds. I only wish I could go back to watch them nuzzling one another on their favorite mahogany tree, or playfully chasing their mates through the air. These are very entertaining birds – they are as playful as energetic puppies and as sweet and snuggly as sleepy kittens! They would sometimes hang upside-down from the branches and steal another bird’s food while nodding their head as if to show off. These highly social and wild birds cannot live to their fullest potential without a family flock and their life-long mate beside them, and are often depressed when kept as house pets. They will pluck out their own feathers from their skin out of pure boredom when locked inside, unable to fly about. In the wild, these birds can fly up to 35 miles per hour and can live to a ripe age of 30 to 50 years. In captivity, they are often bounced from home to home since people don’t realize how noisy, destructive, and dangerous (a scarlet macaw’s beak has a bite strength of 500-700 pounds per square inch) they are. Captive birds have been reported to frequently die prematurely, often suffering from abuse (people often lose patience with these rascally birds), and psychological problems. They are also quite large, at 36 inches long from head to tail and weighing in at about 2.5 pounds. These birds are very emotionally sensitive and intelligent wild animals that belong in their forests of South and Central America.
Seeing the scarlet macaws was one of the last mainland Belize adventures I experienced before heading out to the caye. After a final nostalgic ride on a bus with colorful turquoise and green seat that blasted Belizean-adapted pop music as it drove past more orange groves, a few cacao trees (chocolate trees!?), with a knowledgeable and smiling bus driver pointing out the notable wildlife and villages, we arrived at the edge of the calm Caribbean Sea. I was expecting to see much more turbid waters, since the only significant salty expanse of water I’ve seen before is the restless Pacific Ocean. After a few minutes of boating into the never-ending cyan blue waves where sky meets ocean at an unidentifiable blue area somewhere on the horizon, we came upon Tobacco Caye (pronounced “key”). This tiny caye is to be the location of our stay for the remainder of our trip, excluding one final night at Monkey Bay before departing on the 27th.
I’ll expand upon the snorkeling adventures and the many new things I’ve discovered on the caye in a later post. For now, I am going to eat dinner! Guess what’s on the menu – yep, rice and beans (or is it beans and rice…)!