State devolution has combined with social movement pressures to give communities increasing access and rights to southern forests, making development of effective local participation in sustainable resource management crucial. This paper discusses an experience of participatory research in Central America, which sought to help two grassroots forest organizations, the Association of Forest Communities of Petén, Guatemala and the Farmer to Farmer Programme of Siuna, Nicaragua, to respond to new organizational and political challenges by developing their internal capacity for research and analysis. Community-based ‘para-professional’ social researchers were trained to carry out studies of their communities' experiences with natural resource management, including strengths, problems and possible response strategies. The collaborative research initiative also encountered problems of inequality, uneven education and skills and concerns with validity. The results of this experience indicate that with appropriate support, community-based research and researchers can help engender collective reflection, strengthen local organizational capacity and contribute knowledge and analysis in support of forest community movements' efforts to promote local resource rights and more sustainable development. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.