A project combining participatory forest management and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is underway in south-eastern Tanzania. It introduces early burning practices to reduce the number and (heat) intensity of wild and late-season fires, to develop robust carbon accounting methods. Our analysis considers the causes of forest fires, and local people's knowledge of the early burning process and its impacts on livelihoods, through the development of early burning activities as a potential source of carbon revenue. Some of the difficulties of implementation have been resolved over time (e.g. the premature introduction of carbon contracts), whereas others remain: there are inequalities in knowledge, awareness and participation in early burning and the broader REDD+ process at village level. A more structured approach to early burning, with well-publicized advance planning, that includes all community members and subvillages would make a significant difference. Further challenges exist in the form of both legal and illegal hunting, a cause of forest fires that could undermine the early burning process. We argue that the long-term commitment of project managers to gain detailed knowledge of social–ecological systems, forest governance and local politics is required to successfully develop this and other similar REDD+ projects.