Community forestry is thought to diffuse the kind of tensions over access to resources that frequently make centralized forest management systems based on the principles of scientific forestry ineffective and conflictive. Centralized systems often create resistance, as communities whose vegetation management practices have been declared illegal by forest bureaucracies anonymously contest the restrictions imposed on them by ‘stealing’ trees and committing ‘arson’. These restrictions are intimately related to the requirements of scientific forestry, however, so co-management strategies relying on scientific forestry might also engender various forms of internal resistance, such as tree theft. Local interpretations of justice in access to resources, together with community social structures and the distribution of resources can result in internalized resistance, rendering community-based resource management ineffective. In a Mexican community case-study, scientific forestry and tree theft co-evolved during a period of concessions and continue under co-management. This system creates an arena where anonymous individual resistance like tree theft can give way to forms of protest more likely to result in legitimate and effective forest management systems.