How Jean Pigozzi Plans to Save the World

Courtesy of Pigozzi

On a remote island off Panama’s Pacific coast, the businessman/conservationist welcomes scientists to his Liquid Jungle Lab, a one-of-a-kind research center.

Somewhere between an adventure and an Epic, between Field of Dreams and Fitzcarraldo, lies the tale of Jean Pigozzi and his Liquid Jungle Lab. The story goes like this: Pigozzi, the French-born bon vivant, photographer, rock-and-roll billionaire, venture capitalist, and African art collector whom architect Ettore Sottsass once described as being "obsessed with curiosity," is aboard his yacht en route to Nicaragua when he accidentally happens upon a pristine stretch of Pacific coastline on an island in Panama’s Bahía Honda region.

Enchanted by the mangroves, butterflies, and dolphins—and also the kinkajou, tayras, and agouti—the beau monde bohemian falls in love with this place where the North and South American continents connect. He decides not only to purchase and preserve this land that time has forgotten but also to build a high-tech research facility that will seek solutions to the world’s afflictions (disease, hunger, natural disasters).

Today this radical idea stands as an equally radical design structure: a lab with elegant spaces painted in assorted shades of green and filled with jungle-defying details—from a library to air-conditioning—that define Pigozzi’s idea of must-haves. "When the scientists come," says Pigozzi, "they think they’re moving into the Ritz." And come they do. Teams from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Smith­so­nian Tropical Research In­­stitute, Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies keep the place buzzing.

Although the Liquid Jungle Lab is unique, it does not stand alone in the world of high-impact, hands-on philanthropy. Indeed, Pi­gozzi’s brash and bar-raising mission epitomizes today’s movement toward bettering the planet in an intensely involved and crea­tive manner. These projects call for supreme amounts of energy as well as a substantial and sustained financial commitment.

When Pigozzi is not in the wilds of Panama, he resides all over the world. Here is his own account of the 15 years he has invested in this remarkable research retreat.

I’m always amazed that people with huge boats go mainly from St.-Tropez to Sardinia to St. Barths. There are so many places in the world you can travel to by boat—and very comfortably. I’ve taken mine to Papua New Guinea and to Greenland, to Japan, to the Suez Canal, to Australia, to India, to Alaska, to Iceland, to St. Petersburg.

In 1992 I was looking for a tropical for­est on the sea, something like Careyes, in Mexico. Jimmy Goldsmith, who was a great and close friend, built that resort and I spent every January there. It was what originally inspired me to create the Liquid Jungle Lab. That particular January my friend Daniel said I should look at land in Nicaragua, near the Panama Canal. We were heading in that direction when the waters got a bit rough. The captain suggested we spend the night anchored off an island in a Panamanian bay. The next morning I woke up, saw that the place was incredibly beautiful, and asked myself, Why keep going to Nicaragua? Why not try to buy this? Now I own a lot of land on the coast of Panama. Not that it’s been easy. It isn’t like buying an apartment on Park Avenue, where all you need are two nice lawyers and then the board approval. Pur­chas­ing 20 miles on the Pacific coast of this country has taken me more than ten years. When I arrived, there was nothing. Zero. No roads. No running water. No electricity. Just howler monkeys, dolphins, toucans, and snakes.

Animals, plants, ecology, preservation, conservation—all this interests me. And tech­nology. That’s why I decided to create the Liquid Jungle Lab. Liquid for the sea, jungle for the tropical forests, and a lab, of course. I built it because I thought, When I’m old I’m going to be sitting here and I might get a little bit bored. Really, that’s another reason why this all came about. I know it will be engaging to listen to sci­en­tists explain what’s happening around me. In the forest, if you walk 100 yards alone, it takes about two minutes. If you walk that same 100 yards with a scientist, it could take up to four hours. They ex­­plain, "This butterfly pollinates that; that flower there does this."

I’m a very curious person; I’m also dys­lexic: I can never remember phone numbers. I can’t add. I don’t read novels. But in other ways this helps. I find unusual solutions to problems. Usually people say, "A, B, C…." I would think, A to L, F to Z. Perhaps this is why I have no interest in the past, why I’m completely obsessed with the future. If you live your entire life in the future, some­times you become better at predicting it.

About seven years after I bought the prop­erty, I was at a conference called Tech­nology, En­­ter­tainment, Design in Mon­terey, Cali­fornia. I saw a film about deep-sea hydro­thermal vents made by sci­entists from Woods Hole. I met the filmmakers and told them, "Listen, I have this land in Panama on a little island called Canales de Tierra, where I built a lab. And it’s empty." Soon after, a team of scientists from the organization came to see it—and they fell off their chairs. They weren’t alone. Since then we’ve had incredible interest in the facility. The whole opera­tion has grown and blossomed into some­thing pretty remarkable.

The sea around the lab is even more vi­­brant than the waters surrounding the Galá­pa­gos, which has to do with the tectonic plates be­­tween North and South America and the ma­­rine currents that run from the Galápagos in Ecuador to Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Scientists come across coral and fish near the lab that they’d nor­mally only find at sea 200 miles out or 200 feet below. The Woods Hole research­ers are there all the time now, and they’ve part­nered on-site with scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Re­­search Institute. We now have an undersea camera station 18 miles deep that takes 17 measurements every minute and transfers the data back to the lab. In the next three or four years, we might have 30 of these gadgets measuring temperature and pressure as well as the speeds and directions of the currents. And if we can anticipate these tidal movements, we could eventually use machines to make electricity from these currents. Or predict weather patterns. The Woods Hole scientists have uncovered a huge coral that looks like a brain—they think it’s about 300 years old. They have drilled a microscopic hole in it and can tell, week by week, what the weather has been for the past 30 years. At the same time the people at the Panama Canal have kept very precise records of rainfall for the last 80 years. Now, through the undersea weather station, they’re comparing all this data to rainfall patterns in the forest and to the currents. Our information is only a year old, but by going backward to un­­derstand these patterns we’ll be able to predict what will happen in the future.

If my little lab could forecast, say, when we are moving from La Niña to El Niño, this would be hugely important—for farm­ers, for supermarkets, for clothing man­ufacturers, for airline companies, for insurance companies…for the planet.

The entire complex was designed by a guy named Marco Zanini, who worked with Ettore Sottsass for 20, 25 years. In the be­­ginning we built the lab and three other structures with Colombian archi­tect Simón Vélez, the greatest bamboo spe­cialist in the world. Vélez also crafted a beautiful but very simple train station near the complex because we brought in a little train from Italy, the kind they use in the vineyards there to cut vines. The lab is well organized and immensely elegant, with Sub-Zero fridges. It has all the basic equipment: microscopes, ovens, and so on. I didn’t put in DNA splicers or spend $20 million buying the most advanced equipment in the world. We provide core stuff; the scientists bring the rest.

I built the lab thinking, They will come. It was just that crazy. But it worked. It was like opening a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, or a hotel in the middle of the jungle. Now the lab has been working for four or five years. Some of the projects I’m in­­ter­ested in; others are…obscure. Scientists can be incredibly obsessed with a single microorganism. I will ask, What does this mean? And they’ll say, Oh, in about 40 years the experiment could re­­sult in a cure for cancer.

You know, I’m 55 years old. For me this Panama project is something for the next 30 years. And in ten or 15 years, in this little lab, there will be one or two incredible discoveries. I don’t know what. It could be a new medicine, a new food, a new chemical. My dream is that science and technology and commerce function together. That is why I want this lab to be available to everyone. Say a person with a new idea visits our Web site, liquidjunglelab.com, and sees that what we’re doing is unique. Perhaps then I’ll get a knock on the door with a request to test a new type of rain gear or a less-polluting engine or a new shampoo based on monkey’s hair. Great! That would make me very happy.

Liquid Jungle Lab Stats

Mission

The Liquid Jungle Lab seeks to merge traditional scientific research with high technology to improve the life of all species on our planet.

Location

The lab is located on Canales de Tierra Island, which is part of an 8,650-acre reserve in the Bahía Honda area of Veraguas, off the Pacific coast of Panama. It is 155 miles southwest of Panama City.

Allied institutions

Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid rjb.csic.es

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute stri.org

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution whoi.edu

Recent Projects

The Panama Liquid Jungle Laboratory Un­­derwater Tropical Observatory (4dgeo.whoi.edu/panama) is a project with Woods Hole in which wireless and fiber optics link un­­der­sea data to the lab via the Internet.

The Rosario project partners with prorena—a research coalition between the Smithsonian and the Yale School of Forestry & Environ­mental Studies—to investigate reforestation with native flora and study very rare native species.

Contact

Parties interested in proposing research projects should visit liquidjunglelab.com.