Occidental entrepreneur’s new company aims to ease deforestation in Central America

2022-06-17 05:03:08 By : Mr. Cheng Fei

As a member of the Peace Corps in Nicaragua two decades ago, Olin Cohan saw up close the ravages of deforestation in Central America.

As a building contractor and native of Occidental, he’s all too familiar with California’s affordable housing crisis.

For those two problems, Cohan and his business partner, Aram Terry, offer one elegant solution.

They recently founded Masaya Homes, which designs and builds prefabricated houses, offices and studios using teak grown on reclaimed, reforested cattle pastures in Nicaragua. On the plantations Terry and his father started 15 years ago — 1,200 acres of reclaimed cattle ranges — they’ve planted over 1 million trees to date.

A decade ago Aram Terry and his wife, Abril Zepeda, a Nicaraguan designer and artisan, founded Masaya & Co. which makes furniture from those sustainably managed forests. That same factory, now employing nearly 400 Nicaraguans, has begun production of the prefab units sold by Masaya Homes. While it’s still “early times” for that company, which is less than a year old, it has sold close to a dozen units, with a goal of increasing manufacturing capacity to 200 units per year by 2027, said Cohan.

While in Nicaragua, Cohan played shortstop for a local baseball team. “His teammates would show up on horseback,” recalled his father, Ken Cohan, who visited his son in Central America. Before games began, cow pies had to be removed from the outfield.

The small houses Cohan is now building are the result, arguably, of his giant passion for baseball.

Cohan, 45, played third base at Cardinal Newman High School, then at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, his name popping up every so often in the San Francisco Chronicle sports pages, such as this mid-1990s clip:

“Cohan's solo home run in the top of the ninth inning provided St. Mary's with a wild 15-14 win at USF.”

After college he played baseball in the Netherlands. While it didn’t play especially well, Cohan did acquire a taste for international travel. Upon returning to Sonoma County, his baseball career over, Cohan applied to the Peace Corps, and ended up in Padre Ramos, a fishing village in northwest Nicaragua.

The year was 2001. Cohan taught grade school classes and, along with his Peace Corps partner Terry, led environmentally-focused teacher workshops, always evangelizing for conservation.

Nicaragua had a “major problem” with deforestation, said Cohan. In developing countries, he explained, it was more profitable for the campesinos to clear-cut forests — often discarding or burning the trees — to create grasslands for cattle.

“We would talk about not cutting the forest down, and planting trees, but people need to eat,” said Cohan.

“So what we're doing is trying to make forests profitable for the community. And part of that is turning wood into finished, valuable product.”

So that’s kind of the starting point of what we do.”

Founding the company was a continuation of their work in Nicaragua, where the pair had launched UniversitÁrea Protegida, a nonprofit designed to train the country’s future environmental leaders. That program, run with assistance from the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, placed university students in outlying rural areas to conduct environmental thesis research.

Cohan and Terry launched several successful business ventures in the country, including a coffee farm and a small, community-run hostel. The son of Ken Cohan, formerly the general manager of Windsor’s Town Green Village and Thiessen Homes, Olin had a construction background, and started a company building homes on the beaches of northwest Nicaragua. He specialized in using reclaimed wood from “old haciendas” to build custom homes and surf camps.

He'd been in the country a year or so when he met Ofelia Arteaga, who was researching the area’s birds for her thesis. The two clicked and started dating. Married in 2006, their first daughter was born a year later. (A second daughter arrived in 2015.) Cohan is quick to emphasize the crucial roles Ofelia played in running the hostel, doing landscape design for the construction company and serving as a co-director of the nonprofit.

In 2017, they moved to Sonoma County, where he worked as right-hand man and director of operations for Sebastopol-based Snyder Construction, owned by fellow Newman graduate Tom Snyder.

Cohan and Terry had long discussed the possibility of expanding into prefab units. With demand for such units rising and the pace of fire rebuilds slowing in Sonoma County, they decided “to take the next step,” said Cohan, who left Snyder Construction a year ago.

While starting a new company felt like a little bit of a gamble, he allowed, it also felt like exactly the right thing to do: binding together his background in construction, his passion for conservation, and his love for Nicaragua and its people.

“To be honest,” he said, “there’s nothing in my life I’d rather do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: