The institutional arrangements governing forests will be a critical factor in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) as part of the global effort to mitigate climate change. A growing body of empirical research demonstrates how local forest governance can be as, if not more, effective than centralized state-based regimes. Local forest governance can secure improvements in multiple forest outcomes such as biomass and carbon storage and livelihoods contributions for the poor, and it can do so at lower cost than is possible through centralized governance. Many national governments have implicitly recognized these findings in their pursuit of decentralized forest governance and in strengthening local rights and capacities to use and manage forests. However, such reforms are often politically resisted, particularly where the value of forest resources is high and central government bodies are able to capture the majority of benefits. Ongoing negotiations related to the design and delivery of REDD policy and practice must take into account both the importance of local forest governance arrangements and the political-economic barriers to devolving secure rights over forests to local communities. These political dimensions of forest tenure and policy create a paradox for REDD: increasing the value of forest resources through global carbon markets without attending to local governance and rights will create political incentives towards centralized governance, which could lead to greater forest loss and lower forest-related benefits for the poor.