In Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, recent social, political and environmental transformations have precipitated the intensification of wetland use, as local people have sought to safeguard and strengthen their livelihoods. Concurrent decentralization policies in both countries have also seen the government strengthen its position at the local level. Drawing upon recent field-based evidence from Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, this paper examines the compatibility between community-based local institutions for wetland use, and the process of decentralization. It argues that decentralization has in fact restricted the development of mature local institutional arrangements, due to its intrinsically political interventionist nature. Crown Copyright (C) 2008 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.