Headlines - New York Times - "Panama Calling to Preserve Its Edens"

Panama Calling to Preserve Its Edens

By Anne Raver
Published: April 14, 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…

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…

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…

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?"