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Everyone Has a Story

Everyone’s got a story

Olin Cohan loves his job. “I love that my occupation doesn’t feel like an occupation,” he says. “I love the time that I get to spend in some of the most beautiful and remote areas that Nicaragua has to offer. And I love working with people who are excited about the progress of their country.” olin Cohan. Photo by Aram Terry.

As the director and co-founder of UniversitÁrea Protegida (UÁP), which trains Nicaragua’s future environmental leaders, Cohan places university students in outlying rural areas, usually national reserves, to conduct environmental thesis research. The students also engage with the local communities, teaching environmental education classes in the schools or leading workshops centered on sustainability and natural resources.

To Cohan, the logic of UÁP’s program is flawless: “By UÁP’s facilitating their relationships with local NGOs and rural communities, [students] are being exposed to the environmental field in a way that they would never be exposed to without this opportunity.” And the real magic happens between the university students and local youth. “The younger kids begin to ask our students how they were able to get to college and begin to dream about it for themselves.”

The idea for UÁP was born after Cohan joined the Peace Corps and was placed in Nicaragua, in the environmental education sector. He was already committed to environmental activism, having worked with The Otter Project in Santa Barbara, California. In September 2001, after three months of intensive Spanish study, he was sent to Padre Ramos, a fishing village in the northwest corner of Nicaragua.

In Cohan’s first year he and his Peace Corps partner, Aram Terry, worked with local teachers, giving environmental education classes in grade schools. He led environmentally-focused teacher workshops and youth groups, spreading his passion for conservation. Since Padre Ramos is one of 14 communities that form the natural reserve Estero Padre Ramos, Cohan and Terry began working with the local NGO in charge of managing the protected area of the reserve and conducting a number of conservation projects.

After a year, Cohan met Ofelia Arteaga, a university student from Managua. Arteaga had arrived in Padre Ramos to conduct her thesis research on the area’s birds and wanted to share her knowledge with the community. Cohan, Terry, and Arteaga began collaborating on the environmental education classes and, after recognizing common conservation interests, began dreaming about a program that would place Nicaraguan university students like Arteaga in rural natural reserves to conduct thesis projects while helping to educate locals about environmental issues. Thus, UniversitÁrea Protegida (UÁP) was conceived.

After much fund-raising and travel between the US and Nicaragua, UÁP officially became a project of Earth Island Institute in August of 2003. Administratively, UÁP was set and secured. “Earth Island has been a great fit for us,” Cohan says. “I think this is what David Brower’s vision was based on; allowing those of us with ideas the time and flexibility to get to work.” Today, UÁP supports 18 students in four areas who are conducting their thesis work and starting environmental education classes in rural schools.

While Cohan seems to have found his dream job, it’s challenging work. He spends about eight months a year in Nicaragua working at his office in León and visiting the students once they’ve been placed, ensuring their well-being while assisting with their research. He also travels to remote corners of the country in search of communities and NGOs that would welcome UÁP students’ involvement. The other four months of the year, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works in the EII offices on UÁP administrative tasks. The hardest thing about living in two countries, he says, is adjusting to the different paces of each place. “Nica time is at least an hour late, if not more. When I am in California, I have a good excuse when I am late. ‘I’m still on Nica time.’”


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