This paper investigates the adoption of bench terraces by applying a three-stage analysis using data from 301 households in the highlands of Rwanda. Ongoing adoption of bench terraces is ‘unpacked’ to consider both adopters willing to retain and increase the intensity of using terraces already constructed and new adopters willing to develop new bench terraces. Results suggest that farmers' inability to maintain existing terraces may explain the reluctance to adopt new terraces. The same inability explains why some of the terraces constructed earlier are not well maintained and fully used by farmers in northern and southern Rwanda. Policy actions aimed at improving farmer's capacity to invest in complementary inputs will sustain future generations of soil and water conservation measures in Rwanda. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.