Extractive reserves are important initiatives in tropical forest zones which seek to integrate conservation of natural resources with development and human welfare objectives. Increasingly in such initiatives empowerment of local communities is seen as both a means of achieving this integration and as an end in itself. This article presents a theoretically informed analysis of the interactions between rubber tappers and environmental organizations in the establishment and implementation of extractive reserves in Rond?nia, Brazil. It distinguishes two dimensions of empowerment — political and economic — and examines how the alliances between organizations have impacted differentially on the two dimensions. The analysis suggests that these alliances have so far been more successful in enabling political rather than economic empowerment. Advances in political empowerment are shown, in the short-term at least, not to have resulted in improvements in livelihood conditions of poor forest dwellers.