FLARE Boosts Forests as Pathways to Prosperity

Author: Kara Kelly

Thriving forests are a fundamental pillar of fighting climate change, removing carbon from the atmosphere, locking it away, and making ecosystems more resilient. However, a critical but often overlooked part of supporting forests' viability is advocating for the people who fight to protect them.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Indigenous Peoples own, manage, or occupy one-quarter of the world’s land, home to 80 percent of global biodiversity as practices such as large-scale logging, industrial farming, and mining violate the rights of native peoples and threaten critical land.

“Frontline communities and human rights defenders are essential in protecting and restoring forests,” says Daniel C. Miller, associate professor of environmental policy at the Keough School of Global Affairs. “FLARE is committed to supporting these unsung heroes of conservation through rigorous research, cross-regional exchange, and policy engagement.”

FLARE, or Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement—coordinated by Miller and based at the Keough School of Global Affairs—is a collaborative hub of scholars, educators, and practitioners working across different sectors and disciplines, coming together because they share a common vision: to promote the role of forests as pathways to prosperity.

FLARE’s global outreach is fueled by its annual conferences, including the 2023 event in Nairobi, Kenya, attended by 215 people from 40 countries.

Indigenous communities are not just fighting to remain stewards of lands on which their way of life depends; they also demand fair and equitable sharing of the resources derived from the forests they call home. 

Indigenous Peoples foster a balanced environment so forests continue to provide access to water, food, and shelter; however, “forces are arrayed against flourishing forest communities in many parts of the world,” Miller says. “At its core, FLARE is about communities and forests, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable communities in low- and middle-income countries.”

Community forests are lands held collectively by Indigenous Peoples and local communities where people rely on resources that are inextricably linked to their identity and culture. In recent years, there has been a change in recognizing local communities’ critical role in managing and conserving forests, but acknowledgment can ring hollow.

An illustrative case involves the Ogiek community in Kenya, an Indigenous group residing in the Mau Forest. Human rights violations have marred the Kenyan government’s efforts to protect this forest. Over 100,000 individuals have reportedly been evicted and their homes destroyed by the country’s forest service. Despite rulings by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirming the Ogiek’s Indigenous status and land ownership, the Kenyan government has continued using conservation as a pretext for their removal.

Miller also highlights a major concern that carbon offsets will further disempower communities like the Ogiek while having minimal impact on climate change. For example, Blue Carbon, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, has secured forested land equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom across five African nations to create carbon credits to sell to companies and governments to offset the climate pollution they generate.

“I am very concerned about such land grabs,” Miller says. “At worst, they allow wealthy countries to continue to burn planet-warming fossil fuels while taking land and life from people who have lived there for generations. Such offsets are often imposed without consulting communities and have limited impact on climate change.”

Miller underscores the crucial role of scholars, educators, and activists in addressing these challenges, along with an evidence-based platform that empowers communities to advocate for themselves. FLARE’s multidisciplinary approach involves economists, anthropologists, geographers, foresters, and biologists united in understanding and supporting the coexistence of people and forests.


The network’s origins can be traced back to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009. Her research led to the establishment of the International Forestry Resources and Institutes Network, which focused on local communities’ use, management, and governance of tropical forests. After Ostrom’s passing in 2012, one of her collaborators, Arun Agrawal, a professor at the University of Michigan, launched FLARE. Agrawal’s reputation in the field of forests and policy, along with Ostrom’s legacy, lent immediate credibility to the network, which has since grown into a significant community of practice.

Miller draws inspiration from Ostrom and Agrawal’s work, showing how communities can effectively develop ingenious solutions to govern their forests and other resources. Miller is extending their work by exploring the role of external funders in shaping local collective action and outcomes in community forests.

Having grown up on a goat farm in northern Illinois in a culturally diverse environment, Miller says his background and work as a young adult significantly shaped his perspective on environmental justice, human rights, and conservation. His father worked as a chef at Northern Illinois University, and international students often lived with the Miller family.

“When I was a kid, we always had visitors, and it was formative for me to spend time with people from different cultures,” Miller says. “Most of my professional work has been outside of this country, and I can trace the origins of that interest to my experiences on the farm.”

After graduating from college, Miller worked with a community development non-governmental organization in Indonesian Borneo through Stanford University’s Volunteers in Asia program. He saw firsthand the challenges Indigenous communities face due to environmental degradation, market pressures, and cultural shifts. Then, as a graduate student, Miller focused on the governance of protected areas in West Africa’s W National Park and its interface with international aid, noting such programs frequently fail to adequately engage with local politics.

Miller’s career took a pivotal turn with his role at the MacArthur Foundation in their conservation and sustainable development program. The position and his work with Agrawal—who later supervised his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan—provided a comprehensive view of the conservation challenges he encountered in Indonesia. A subsequent position at the World Bank further broadened his understanding of the flow of financing for conservation and its relatively minor role in mainstream global agendas.


Today, Miller's work at the University of Notre Dame is grounded in addressing tangible issues, emphasizing the importance of forests in development discourse and policy. Miller emphasizes the crucial role of international conservation support and effective local governance structures, which he calls the “missing middle” in aid distribution.

Under Miller’s guidance, FLARE explores the intricate relationship between forests and poverty. Seeking to understand the multifaceted role forests play in supporting livelihoods, FLARE-supported research sometimes finds trade-offs among different sustainability goals.

“At a time when forests are gaining unprecedented attention in international policy, there is a need for careful consideration of both conservation and livelihood interests,” Miller says. “The FLARE network’s role is to facilitate discussions among diverse stakeholders, including scholars, donors, practitioners, and communities, while keeping the spotlight on the myriad of benefits forests have for human well-being, especially for the most marginalized.”

FLARE’s work also entails creating a supportive and collegial environment where its 1,300-plus members can contribute meaningfully, regardless of their discipline or career stage. One notable example is the involvement of Beverly Ndifoin, a Keough School Master of Global Affairs student from Cameroon. Ndifoin’s work with FLARE, particularly her presentation on environmental storytelling at its 2023 conference in Nairobi, highlights the network’s ability to support advocacy.

Ndifoin shared how she is working with her mother, Honourine Wainachi Nengtoh, an environmental activist and member of Cameroon’s parliament, to empower local communities with scientific knowledge as they promote financial self-sufficiency through agroforestry. A majority of the country’s small-scale farmers are female, and using data to break cultural barriers is critical, she says, especially as Cameroon remains engaged in a bloody civil war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives and left nearly four million people dependent on humanitarian assistance.

“FLARE helps my mother gather evidence-based information that she can use,” Ndifoin says. “A challenge is that researchers assume policymakers read the journals where they publish, but they don’t. She’s now using results to help women in Cameroon benefit from having forest land rights.”

FLARE’s global outreach is fueled by its annual conferences, including the 2023 event in Nairobi, attended by 215 people from 40 countries. It served as a platform for academic exchange and a commitment to addressing the pressing issues of climate change, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights.

“The value of FLARE is in the people who comprise the network,” Miller says. “Many of the top researchers worldwide working on these topics are providing a robust evidence base on what works and what doesn’t to support thriving forests and people. This research and the platform for exchange that FLARE provides is equipping communities on the frontlines to advocate for their rights and draw benefits that help them flourish while maintaining forests.”