At their most local, initiatives to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) will depend on rural people to manage forest resources. Although the design of frameworks, mechanisms and arrangements, to implement REDD programs have received significant attention, it is not yet clear how REDD+ will function on the ground or how the participation of local populations will be assured. Community forest management (CFM) could be an option under REDD+ depending on how it is negotiated, largely because of the expectation that CFM could reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation. Examining institutional factors in the emergence of successful CFM systems and local forest enterprises could provide valuable lessons for REDD planners. We examine cases of CFM development in Mexico, Brazil and Bolivia, to assess the role of multi-scaled governance institutions in their development. Comparing and contrasting advanced CFM systems to regions where it is still emerging, we will show how the establishment of a local organizational base for communal resource management is crucial.