This article considers how environmental problematics are produced and interpreted, using case material from West Africa’s humid forest zone. Examing the experiences of several countries over the long term, it is possible to identify a deforestation discourse produced through national and international institutions. This represents forest and social history in particular ways that structure forest conservation but which obscure the experience and knowledge of resource users. Using fine-grained ethnography to explore how such discourse is experienced and interpreted in a particular locale, the article uncovers problems with ‘discourse’ perspectives which produce analytical dichotomies which confront state and villager, and scientific and ‘local’ knowledges. The authors explore the day-to-day encounters between villagers and administrators, and the social and historical experiences which condition these. Instances where the deforestation discourse becomes juxtaposed with villagers’ alternative ideas about landscape history prove relatively few and insignificant, while the powerful material effects of the discourse tend to be interpreted locally within other frames. These findings present departures from the ways relations between citizen sciences and expert institutions have been conceived in recent work on the sociology of science and public policy.