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Leaf 2: Frankie, Lord of the Seeds

A leaf from:

This Broken Land of Promise:

A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country

Franklin Manuel Pérez, our Tree Bank Nursery Assistant, lost his father in February. Beato Pérez — or “Caco,” as everyone called him — was a short, soft-spoken man who never seemed to have a bad word to say about anyone.

Caco was a heavy smoker. He liked to roll his own cigarettes from a tin of coarse, harsh tobacco. He died of lung cancer at the age of 65.

Frankie’s mother, Ana Lucia Luciano, is dying of cancer now. She is also in her sixties. She plans to spend her final weeks in her sister’s house in Restauración, a handsome little town just a few miles up the road from Los Cerezos, the community where the Tree Bank is based. Her cancer seems to have originated as some sort of gynecological problem but it has since spread throughout her body and there is little that the doctors can do for her. She has maybe a month or two to live. I regret that I never got to know her.

Frankie lives in Los Cerezos. His cabin is just 50 yards or so from his parents’ cabin. So even though he has a family of his own — a wife and three teenage step-daughters — he saw his parents just about every day, and usually a couple of times a day. (I know because Matt and I usually stay in an adjoining cabin when we’re on site.) Now, at 30 years of age, he will shortly have lost them both.

A couple of weeks ago, Frankie asked his cousin Mari to contact me because he wanted to borrow 10,000 pesos (about $220) from the Sangha, against the very modest stipend that we pay him for his work at the Tree Bank’s two nurseries. (We currently pay him about $155 a month.) Frankie knows that Mari and I are in touch occasionally, and he apparently felt more comfortable contacting me through her than on his own. I told Mari to tell Frankie that I was sure that we could work something out.

Mari didn’t explain why Frankie wanted the loan, but a few days later, Yinabel, another cousin, told me that he needed it for his mother’s impending burial expenses. (More on Yinabel in a later leaf.)

Frankie is not an only child. I thought that he was because neither he nor anyone else ever mentioned his brothers to me — but the other day, I was surprised to hear that he has five of them! Unfortunately, they are all even poorer than he is, and, until recently, they all lived in Santiago de los Caballeros — the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city, a world away from Los Cerezos. Just recently, Frankie’s eldest brother, Francisco, moved back to Los Cerezos, to try to make a living with Caco’s land and animals.

This rather doubtful inheritance may be Francisco’s, but the financial obligations are all Frankie’s. Since his brothers are in no condition to help, Frankie must pay for his parents’ funerals on his own. He buried his father in a cemetery just a mile or so down the road from his cabin. Caco lies in a small mausoleum there, and Frankie wants his mother to rest in a crypt next to her husband. Yinabel told me that Frankie was ashamed about not being able to pay for this second crypt and that he didn’t know what to do.

Matt and I think that Frankie has serious potential for the Tree Bank. He’s reliable, hardworking, and very good with plants — which maybe is not surprising, since he’s a farmer. He’s also a very nice guy, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s as strong as an ox. American suburbanites like me can sometimes forget what an asset physical strength can be in the countryside — that is, until we’re out there, and somebody has to hoist the broken motorcycle into the bed of the pickup. And that would not be me.

Unfortunately, Frankie is completely illiterate. He cannot even recognize his own name in print. We have encouraged him to enroll in an adult literacy program and he agrees that this would be a good idea, but he hasn’t done anything about it. Since he can’t read and write, he’s not going to become a full collaborator with Cosme and Manolo, the Tree Bank’s Dominican Directors. But Matt thinks that he could still play a crucial role in the development of our coffee and cocoa programs, and I agree.

When the coffee and cocoa harvests begin to come in, we’re going to need someone to manage the curing of the beans. That’s a craft that requires care and regular attention — the kind of demands that play to Frankie’s strengths. With practice, Frankie could probably increase the share of the local harvest that makes the grade for export. Export-grade coffee and cocoa sell for good prices. Frankie could become a very popular guy.

But we’re still at least a year away from our next coffee harvest, and at least two years away from our first cocoa harvest. Our cocoa program is new; we started planting substantial numbers of cocoa-tree seedlings just last year. Coffee is not new to us, but we lost all of our established coffee trees — thousands of them — to the coffee leaf-rust epidemic during 2013 and 2014. We have been replanting our groves with rust-resistant cultivars since 2015.

So no coffee or cocoa for another year or so, but in the meantime, Frankie could help us with an even more basic need: we plan to enroll a considerable number of new sites in our forest planting programs this year, so we’ll probably need to double or even triple our production of native-tree seedlings. To do that, our nurseries are going to need a lot more native-tree seed.

And that’s why I told Frankie that we would give him — not lend him — the 10,000 pesos, if he would agree to become our Señor de las Semillas, our Lord of the Seeds, and go get that forest germplasm! He has agreed, and Yinabel reports that he is very pleased with our vote of confidence.

We’re about to add an agenda to this agreement in principle. Cosme and I are developing a master list of tree species for propagation. We’re revising a more general list prepared for us by Brígido Peguero, a botanist at the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo. Brígido got us off to a great start, but his list covers pretty well the entire province of Dajabón, which extends from the Island’s rugged central highlands, where Los Cerezos is located, to the lower-elevation and much warmer plain to the north. We need to prune the list, so that it contains only species that occur naturally in our project area.

The revisions are nearly complete, and we should be able to put the list to work next month. The task of explaining the list’s contents to Frankie will probably fall to Cosme or Yinabel. Frankie already knows his trees pretty well. We’re going to give him an opportunity to put that knowledge to some serious use.

Doling out more obligations may not sound like a very sympathetic way to respond to a friend in need, but I’m looking for more here than just tree seedlings. I’m hoping that Frankie’s role in forest conservation will help him see how big his life is, despite the losses that he has suffered.

“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at

— Chris Bright

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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