Development practitioners frequently rely on community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) as an approach to encourage equitable and sustainable environmental resource use. Based on an analysis of the case of grassland and woodland burning in highland Madagascar, this article argues that the success of CBNRM depends upon the real empowerment of local resource users and attention to legitimacy in local institutions. Two key factors — obstructive environmental ideologies (‘received wisdoms’) and the complex political and social arena of ‘community’ governance — challenge empowerment and legitimacy and can transform outcomes. In Madagascar, persistent hesitancy among leaders over the legitimate role of fire has sidetracked a new CBNRM policy called GELOSE away from one of its original purposes — community fire management — towards other applications, such as community management of forest exploitation. In addition, complications with local governance frustrate implementation efforts. As a result, a century-long political stalemate over fire continues.