Once again, the international community focuses on the preservation of Amazonian forests, in particular through a bundle of initiatives grouped under the term of REDD+. Initially focusing on reducing carbon emissions, the REDD+ process became increasingly linked with developmental goals that represent the primary interest of all Amazon countries. In consequence, REDD+ can be seen as another attempt to achieve the twin goals of environmental protection and rural development, and consequently, relies on the strategies and tools of past efforts. Against this background, we explore past experiences with key strategies for environmental protection and poverty alleviation in the Amazon to critically reflect about the potential of REDD+ to contribute to sustainable local development in the region. The analysis demonstrates that initiatives that pursued environmental goals mostly led to more restrictions and bureaucratic barriers to local forest users, while the prevailing approaches to promote rural dwellers showed ambivalent environmental outcomes. Reasons for these unsatisfactory results include the sectoral alignment of the measures and the poor coordination and lack of coherence with decisive policy areas. Most critically, the environmental and social initiatives themselves rely on the classic development approach widely disregarding smallholders’ capacities to contribute to local development. The manifold pilot activities emerging under the new REDD+ framework tend to repeat these shortcomings, thereby further accelerating the replacement of local socio-productive schemes with unsustainable land uses. In view of the growing consensus about the ecological incompatibility, social limitations and economic risks of classic development, an alternative vision of development is needed, which more consciously takes into account the immense social and environmental potential of the region. Considering that REDD+ is still at the start, there might be possibilities to re-adjust the framework and thereby turn it into a real contribution to the sustainable development of rural Amazon.