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28 March 2024

In the need of applied participatory research

2023 FLARE Annual Meeting

Photo by FLARE Annual meeting

Reflections from Kenya’s FLARE Annual Meeting 2023

The FLARE (Forests & Livelihoods Assessment, Research, and Engagement) Annual Meeting 2023 took place in Nairobi last October. I was delighted to be able to attend the first Global South location of a FLARE annual meeting both as a presenter, an audience member and an interviewer. I am currently doing my PhD at Lund University in the Colombian Amazon, using a participatory approach to understand and support Indigenous knowledge that regulates the consumption of wild fauna in this tropical region.

The annual meeting aimed to advance and promote the link between research and action for thriving forests, trees, and people and took place in a conference setting. Even though it might seem obvious that livelihoods directly depend upon ecosystems, the link is not yet widespread within academia.

Forest and livelihood interdependency is usually better understood by communities that directly interact with and depend on ecosystems on a daily basis (Ostrom. E, 1990), a common case in tropical territories. This has been a challenge for academic methods and reasoning, emanating from locations where theory and modernity are the key drivers. The need of practice-ecosystem-stakeholder based conservation research has long been pointed at, but still isn’t fully being addressed by the mainstream.

215 local leaders, representatives from neighbouring countries and international researchers from more than 40 countries joined the CIFOR-ICRAF agroforestry centre in Kenya to share their findings and discuss the challenges faced during their research. I was lucky to get to know researchers from all over the world and even interview a few of them.

Innovative spaces and new learnings at the conference

Besides focusing on the link between ecosystems and livelihoods, the conference included a series of “innovative sessions’ for the first time. These sessions were designed to engage differently around forests and livelihoods. I was most inspired by these new and innovative sessions, as I felt that something or someone different was walking the road of participatory and communitarian action research. In this case, four women showed me at least four different ways this innovation can be done in research: Fernanda Liberali working in Brazil, Debbie Pears, conducting research in Colombia, Lucinda Middleton, based in Indonesia, and Roxventa, located in Kenia.

Play and body connection

Meeting outside the conference rooms, holding hands in silence and tuning in with the softest inner body movements and emotions was how I experienced the work of Fernanda Liberali; a strong and vital woman with a PhD in applied linguistics, from the post-graduate programme of applied linguistics at the Pontific Catholic University of São Paulo. Fernanda explains how the individual connection with our own bodies allows us to reach a level of honesty that – when done in a group – raises a level of confidence and transparency that allows a group to express and address any issue effectively and passionately. She achieves this not only by initially playing with the participants but also by sharing the powerful stories of transformation with intergenerational cases that addressed environmental and socio-ecological struggles at the local level in different parts of the world. I must say that this was the most meaningful space for me at the conference.

Women’s role in land tenure decisions

Access to stories and territories in tropical regions has always been a challenge for researchers, especially regarding sensitive topics such as land tenure and women’s role in the Amazon forest of Colombia.  Debbie Pierce from the University of British Columbia is researching upon this very topic; her project builds upon a project previously conducted by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture on cattle ranchers and cacao cultivators in post-conflict areas of the Colombian Amazon, aiming to contribute to peacebuilding and improved livelihoods. Debbie works and engages with women farmers to better understand what challenges and opportunities they face in continuing to build peace in their communities.

Food security and gender role

One great example of human and ecosystem interdependence with a gender division of labourers is the use of mangroves in Indonesia. This complex system is studied by Lucinda Middleton, an interdisciplinary nutritionist PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University who has spent years living close to marine ecosystems, describing and collaborating with local families that depend on the interaction with mangroves on a daily basis. Lucinda insists that “We as universities and researchers (…) have a lot of work in front of us to work with local communities and uphold their knowledge and to understand that not all knowledge is eurocentric, that there can still be science that comes from a local perspective (…)”. She feels that food security and gender sessions are spaces that need to be continued and expanded if we aim to effectively address the current conservation and livelihood challenges.

Communities vision first

Roxventa Ongugo is a researcher at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute working with local communities in Kenya, and studying how their forest management dynamics can contribute to livelihood improvement. In the interview, she says that she was most surprised by the interventions that showed a clear link between ecosystems and food and the connection between culture and governance. She even points out that participation of local communities was low and specifies that, “this should be improved to reach and finance the different local conservation organisations that exist but might not be invited or funded”. She insists that any methodology that places communities’ experiences and views first is the best approach for any study. She recognises that this may be an initial challenge for external counterparts.

Indigenous Knowledge for sustainable subsistence hunting

After talking to these researchers, I changed my role and let Lucinda interview me, so that I could also share my views on the annual meeting, forests, and livelihoods.

In the interview, I raised the need to hear and ensure that Indigenous views and voices are invited and heard, in order to have realistic and growing learning experiences in these conferences. There’s a strong need for dialogue around knowledge, especially with what is named as the “Traditional Ecological Knowledge”, a conservation agency still not recognised as one, even though it has been an active institution for at least for 14,000 years in the Amazon region.

Excursion to the Masai Mara territory

After the conference I made a three-day trip to the Masai Mara territory, where a few Maasai villages remain on the borders of urban settlements relocated by law outside of the national park, permitting me to get an understanding of the sense of local knowledge in this particular region.

 Local Masai village and the border of the Masai Mara National Park

These communities have a deep understanding of the savannas, their wildlife, plants, climates, soil dynamics and cultural practices that promote vital skills to maintain Masai traditional livelihoods. Even though they have been living in these territories for thousands of years, they were forced to move their villages outside of the modern concept of a national park. Some Masai leaders and researchers were present at the conference and insisted that modern sciences need to have serious and deep dialogues with local knowledge holders.

Masai tools and technique to initiate fire

FLARE as an connection enabler

The connection between researchers and their work is an ongoing process, and these  multicultural exchanges scenarios favoured it. Locations, topic scopes and funding in these meetings affect the quality of their outcomes and this effort of FLARE to meet us all in Kenya is an example of it. Still it needs to be repeated and sustained through time if sustained local livelihoods are our interest.


Carlos attended the FLARE Annual Meeting 2023 within the Focali-SIANI collaboration.


Story and images by: Carlos Alberto Hernández Vélez, Colombian PhD Candidate Lund Center for Sustainability (LUCSUS), Lund University, Sweden.



Editing support by: Magdalena Knobel, Communications Consultant


Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.