Abstract Using an interdisciplinary approach with focus on cultural studies, this study provides institutional perspectives to explain local scale deforestation and community-based forest management. Conducted in the North West Province of Cameroon (dominated by grassland covering about 90% of the surface area), it argues that local people can depend on forests to improve their livelihood, while simultaneously manage few patches of threatened forest biodiversity. This can be achieved via a context-specific multi-stakeholder approach in forest management that involves local communities, traditional authorities and institutions, governments and NGOs. This study further argues that the supply of new institutions such as (in) community forestry is crucial for the sustenance of local scale forest management. In the Kilum-Ijim Forest Area, institutional supply has been legitimised by socio-cultural and political factors as well as the participation of local resource users in institutional crafting and forest management. The study illustrates that an unequal balance of power exists in some community-based forest management projects. But, local institutions and authorities can subtly renegotiate and regain power in forest management through traditional diplomacy and what B. Adrian et al (1999) call chiefing roles (that is, traditional authorities appropriating some State powers in forest management), influenced by the current democratic process in developing countries. Democracy in this perspective is an institution and instrument for decentralised forest management and community development. Hence the democratic dispensation in forest management provides a platform for the re-evaluation, re-invention, and implementation of cultural institutions and practices for forest management. Consequently, local people can use the reservoir of their traditional ecological knowledge, socially learn from formal forest management institutions and techniques. In this perspective, they can sustainably extract, restore, and conserve forest resource bases for future generations.