This paper explores the potential for an environmental justice framing to shed new light on conservation controversies. We argue that, in order to make such progress, environmental justice analysis will need to provide a ‘difference-friendly’ conception of justice and that this will necessarily involve moving beyond dominant liberal conceptions of distributional fairness. We are largely welcoming of global deployments of distributive justice principles. However, we also explore the dangers of focusing on distribution alone, questioning the assumption of positive relationships between benefit sharing and more culturally defined dimensions of justice such as recognition. The limits of access and benefit sharing for delivering justice writ large is that it can disenfranchise people who are less well equipped or less willing to navigate its prevailing system of knowledge. We argue that, especially in the context of resource poverty, efforts to improve distribution can require potential beneficiaries to assimilate to dominant discourses of society and nature. Such conditionality can contract the opportunities for local and autonomous constructions of ‘different’ ways of knowing nature, and in doing so may also contract possibilities for flourishing biodiversities.