Community forests and protected areas have each been proposed as strategies to stop deforestation. These management strategies should be regarded as hypotheses to be evaluated for their effectiveness in particular places. We evaluated the community-forestry hypothesis and the protected-area hypothesis in community forests with commercial timber production and strict protected areas in the Maya Forest of Guatemala and Mexico. From land-use and land cover change (LUCC) maps derived from satellite images, we compared deforestation in 19 community forests and 11 protected areas in both countries in varying periods from 1988 to 2005. Deforestation rates were higher in protected areas than in community forests, but the differences were not significant. An analysis of human presence showed similar deforestation rates in inhabited protected areas and recently inhabited community forests, but the differences were not significant. There was also no significant difference in deforestation between uninhabited protected areas, uninhabited community forests, and long-inhabited community forests. A logistic regression analysis indicated that the factors correlated with deforestation varied by country. Distance to human settlements, seasonal wetlands, and degree and length of human residence were significant in Guatemala, and distance to previous deforestation and tropical semideciduous forest were significant in Mexico. Varying contexts and especially colonization histories are highlighted as likely factors that influence different outcomes. Poorly governed protected areas perform no better as a conservation strategy than poorly governed community forests with recent colonists in active colonization fronts. Long-inhabited extractive communities perform as well as uninhabited strict protected areas under low colonization pressure. A review of costs and benefits suggests that community forests may generate more local income with lower costs. Small sample sizes may have limited the statistical power of our comparisons, but descriptive statistics on deforestation rates, logistic regression analyses, LUCC maps, data available on local economic impacts, and long-term ethnographic and action-research constitute a web of evidence supporting our conclusions. Long-inhabited community forest management for timber can be as effective as uninhabited parks at delivering long-term forest protection under certain circumstances and more effective at delivering local benefits.