Belize Biologist Leads Fight to Stop Proposed Dam

March 14, 2003

Since 1998, Sharon Matola, a Baltimore-born biologist and environmental activist who is now a naturalized citizen of Belize, has led an international campaign to stop the Chalillo hydroelectric dam in her adoptive country.

The dam would flood the Macal River valley—a so-called "Biogem" of rain forest and fertile flood plain that is home to many endangered species like the howler monkey, jaguar, and tapir.

Matola, a graduate of the New College of Florida in Sarasota, is the founder and director of the Belize Zoo. She has launched educational and research programs and written children's books.

Matola ended up in Belize 20 years ago by a circuitous route that included stints as a circus performer and lion trainer in Mexico.

Last week, after addressing the "Forces for Nature" benefit of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, Matola spoke with National Geographic Today about her cause and her life.

What could the Chalillo dam do?

It will flood more than 2,000 acres of pristine rain forest along about 22 miles [35 kilometers] of the Macal River valley.

The valley is rich in biodiversity, including a number of endangered species. For example, the valley is the only place left in northern and Central America where one subspecies of scarlet macaw can live undisturbed. In other places these macaws are poached or have guards watching the nests.

Only about 250 of the birds survive. But here they are living more or less as they always have—that should be preserved.

The region is also a corridor for wild cats, like the jaguar—which I saw for the first time in this valley—and for many species of migratory birds.

Do you think your campaign will succeed?

We'll just keep fighting and hope that Fortis Inc. [a power company based in Newfoundland, Canada] will tire and say this just is not worth it. The case is currently stuck in the Belize Supreme Court. One judgment is still pending in a lawsuit brought by BACONGO [Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs].

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