"When you meet people like Sharon, you can't help believing," says Lightburn. "Belize still has a chance. That's why we do these inspections." He waves at the mangroves. "This is what Florida used to look like. We don't want to end up looking like the Everglades."
Twenty-four hours later, Matola has a dress on and her hair up, and she is en route to Belmopan to visit the man she describes as her hero. Florencio Marin was born in a rural village not far from Belize's border with Mexico. He had scant formal education and was a farmer until he was elected to the National Assembly in 1965. He has been in politics ever since. Today he is the deputy prime minister and the minister of natural resources.
Marin is a well-fed man whose face resembles Manuel Noriega's. He wears zippered boots and an untucked white shirt. "As a boy there was game meat in abundance in our community," he says, sitting in his office. "As I grew up, I found that the deer meat that was so common in my boyhood was now very scarce. All the forests had been turned into cane fields. This provoked my thinking as to the steps we must take to preserve the species we have." This isn't just political patter. A year ago, Marin was instrumental in facilitating the expansion of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve from 3,000 to 103,000 acres.
Cockscomb was the idea of Alan Rabinowitz, an American zoologist who spent years by himself deep in the Belizean jungles, charting the behavior of the jaguar for the New York Zoological Society. Rabinowitz's findings led to the establishment of Cockscomb, an important accomplishment but ultimately not a practical one, since jaguars require much more than 3,000 acres to rove. Matola and Rabinowitz became good friends during his time in Belize. After he left, Matola took part in a campaign to expand the sanctuary, mentioning it to government officials at every opportunity. She would sit outside Marin's office for hours to get in a three-minute conversation. Her break came when, at Matola's invitation, Kathryn Fuller of the World Wildlife Fund visited Belize. "With Sharon standing there, I asked Marin if he'd expand the sanctuary if [the WWF] funded it," says Fuller. "He said, 'Madame President, write me a letter and it is done.' I wrote him the next morning, and he did it."
Expanding Cockscomb required Marin to cancel two citrus-industry concessions. Marin's instincts outpace his scientific education, so he relies heavily on Matola's advice. On this day they discuss his plans to create a new forest biosphere reserve for World Environment Day. Then Matola gets up and hands Marin a chocolate bar she has bought for him. They beam at each other, and she leaves.
Matola keeps her personal life very private, so Belize is full of rumors about her relations with men. Regarding marriage, she says, "It's too late for that. I like my way of life a lot, and that would change it. Anybody can get married. Not everybody can have such an impact.
"I always feel good that I live here. I like being out in a jungle better than anything else. I didn't plan to become a citizen and stay here for the rest of my life, but I consider myself a conservationist in the most basic sense. If I were in Montana or Peru, I would be doing the same thing. I've loved animals since I was a child. So here I get to do what I love. It's a satisfying life for me. I've created a zoo."