Panama Calling to Preserve Its Edens

Anne Raver April 21, 2005

EDWINA VON GAL, a garden designer based in East Hampton, N.Y., first saw Panama five years ago, while cruising down the Panama Canal on a yacht owned by Jean Pigozzi, an Italian investor. She and her husband, Jay Chiat, the co-founder of Chiat/Day, the advertising agency, were heading for Bahía Honda, a quiet bay where Mr. Pigozzi was buying thousands of acres. "I loved Bahía Honda," Ms. von Gal said. "But I had no plans to return."

The next year, Frank Gehry asked Ms. von Gal to create a botanical park for a biodiversity museum he was designing with Bruce Mau for Panama City. "It was a nice break for me while Jay was sick," said Ms. von Gal, who was on hiatus from work to care for her husband, who had prostate cancer.

The two had been inseparable since 1997, when Mr. Chiat hired her to design the grounds of his beach home in Sagaponack, N.Y.

When Mr. Chiat died in 2002, at age 70, there was a void. She was reluctant to go back to working on fancy gardens in the Hamptons, and Mr. Chiat's assets left her with a newfound freedom. So she went to Panama to immerse herself in a tropical world she knew nothing about - and found a new path. Just as she had learned about junipers years ago by loading them on and off trucks at an upstate New York nursery, she now followed botanists into the jungle.

What began as a commission has turned into a mission, as Ms. von Gal and a group of like-minded Americans, lured by cheap land and a government aware of the fragility of its natural resources, are creating a new version of the Gold Coast, a Riviera with an eco-friendly agenda.

They are pooling their funds to buy up old cattle ranches before developers buy the land for high-rise resorts, casinos and golf courses. They are reforesting eroded lands, and planning to build with local wood, and local labor, and living off the grid with wind and solar power.

Last month Ms. von Gal stood on a windy cliff on the Azuero Peninsula, about 200 miles southwest of Panama City. Frangipani trees were blooming everywhere.

"People here call them cocoloche," she said, stepping lightly, in black flip-flops, over the fresh planks of recently felled teak trees. "So I call this Punta Cocoloche."

Ms. von Gal, whose clients include Calvin Klein and Richard Serra, recently bought part of an old cattle ranch here. She will plant trees on the overgrazed hills, and set up temporary quarters in a shipping container, ordered from Panama City.

"I'll put a little porch on the front," she said. "When I leave, the whole thing folds up and locks."

The land rush began gradually, after the United States transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999, and Panama began courting eco-tourists and retirees to bolster a struggling economy. The Panamanian Rubén Blades, a salsa singer and musician, film star, Harvard-trained lawyer and political activist, fled the country with his family in the 1970's, before the dictator Manuel Noriega began his rule of violence and corruption. Now, Mr. Blades is back, as Panama's minister of tourism.

"Noriega is gone," Mr. Blades said. "We have so much to offer in this country. And people are coming in droves."

The newcomers include Ms. von Gal's friends, Maya Lin, the designer and artist, and her husband, Daniel Wolf, an art collector and investor, who built a house on land in Bahía Honda a few years ago. They introduced her to Ovidio Diaz Espino, a lawyer and investment banker, who, like Mr. Blades and many other native sons, had left the country and come back. Mr. Diaz Espino, who now owns about 300 acres along the coast, invited Ms. von Gal to his low-slung beach house to see the 12-acre sliver of land high on a point across the cove that he wanted to buy to protect his view. It was Punta Cocoloche. Ms. von Gal bought the land with Mr. Diaz Espino for $30,000.

"It is a magical place," she said. "But just plain old beautiful is not what would keep me going back. I've got something that I feel I've just got to do there." Maybe they will just plant trees. Maybe they will develop a community with friends.

"But whatever we do, we want to respect the ecology, bring it back to what it was," said Mr. Diaz Espino, who helped lobby against resort development on the fragile island of Coiba, which is now a national park.

Mr. Diaz Espino has also been reforesting his land with the help of Mark Wishnie, a Yale-trained forester. So far the plantings include more than 40 species of native trees on about 25 acres. Some of these trees, like mahogany, cocobolo and purpleheart, are endangered after generations of slashing and burning for cropland and pastures.

Mr. Wishnie co-founded the nonprofit Native Species Reforestation Project (which is also known by its Spanish acronym, Prorena) about four years ago in collaboration with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

In Bahía Honda, a lusher, more forested landscape than the parched hills of Azuero, which receives 50 percent less rain, Mr. Wishnie is working with Ms. Lin and Mr. Wolf to plant shade-loving cacao, as well as vanilla, which is actually an orchid vine. Both are native to Panama.

"If Prorena can prove that these cash crops can be grown, which require forested areas, then they can prove that the local farmers can make money without cutting down trees," Ms. Lin said.

Ms. Lin, in turn, is designing a field station and greenhouse, pro bono, for Prorena, on land donated by Mr. Diaz Espino.

Ms. von Gal and Mr. Wishnie are also part of a private corporation founded by ecologically-minded friends that recently bought 200 acres of eroded pastureland. The group will plant trees and build a small number of eco-sensitive houses. The friends named the corporation and the land Madroño, after a native tree.

Because Panama is now a big market for second homes for foreigners, they will plant hardwoods to beautify the landscape and improve the habitat for birds and other wildlife, not to mention improve real estate values.

All this talk is a long way from Southampton. Though up on the highest hill in Playa Venado, Ms. von Gal's cellphone started ringing. It was an assistant from Calvin Klein's office. How are they going to plant those trees on the roof?

Last spring Ms. von Gal began to edit the landscape severely around Mr. Klein's 72-room castle on the Atlantic Ocean in Southampton. Known for her spare plantings, she likes to tell her clients that "the obvious obscures the obvious." Why plant a tree tutu of impatiens, for example, around a magnificent oak?

Mr. Klein had an overdose of obvious. "Oh my gosh," she said. "Foo dogs, shark tanks, cascading waterfalls with weeping plants." She got rid of them all, and the tennis court, too. She brought in tons of sand and created artificial dunes behind the real ones, and rolled them right up to the front door. On the other side, facing Shinnecock Bay, she planted red fescue and bayberry and pine. She used massive stones, already there, to make a staircase to the door on the bay side.

"But it's mostly buried," she said. "Very minimal. Calvin style. Grass will grow in the cracks."

But, really, she said, "I just want to be here." And here means Panama. In the evenings she can hear the howler monkeys and watch their young swinging from one branch to another.

Panamanians are like Americans in that many of them do not appreciate the native trees. "And they're afraid of bugs," she said one evening, standing by an old ficus, or fig tree, full of iguanas on the museum site. "They don't stray off the path."

She hopes to change that by planting trees, shrubs and grasses that will grow so happily in this park that people will want to plant them in their yards, as little habitats for the birds and the butterflies they will see here.

That evening, as an ocean liner in the hazy Pacific headed north toward the entrance of the canal, she pointed out the cecropia trees growing like weeds along the water. Farmers like to cut these down, too.

"Look at the silhouettes their leaves cast on the ground," she said, looking down and then up, at the lobed leaves, held aloft like parasols. "These are some of my Dr. Seuss plants. I want a whole grove of them here."

She pictures poroporo, with bright yellow flowers, growing by the entrance to the museum. And near the old ficus, she will plant big natives, like ceiba, with its buttressed trunks, and quipo, whose broad branches, high in the sky, cradle the giant harpy eagle and her young.

She wants to recruit docents from the local garden clubs to tell the stories of these trees and beloved herbs, like limoncello, or lemon grass, an Asian grass used in soups and teas. And she imagines a walkway going right into the canopy of the giant fig tree, which belongs to a genus that stars in the museum of biodiversity.

She turned toward the skyline of Panama City, rising to the north, the freighters moving silently on the horizon to the south, and said, "How am I ever going to go back to Mrs. So-and-So's petunias after all this?"