While there is growing interest among researchers and practitioners concerning the risks that emerging REDD+ regimes pose to rural livelihoods, there has been little scholarly analysis of specific policies that could be applied to guard against these risks. We argue that for REDD+ regimes to avoid negative impacts on local populations, social safeguard policies will need to overcome the significant barriers posed by ambiguous property rights and weak governance and create five institutional conditions: (1) local community support for project-level activities, (2) citizen participation in reforms affecting property rights and land use, (3) transparency of forest carbon revenue flows, (4) citizen access to grievance mechanisms, and (5) opportunities for adaptive management through evaluation. We identify and discuss various policies that could be applied to produce these conditions. We argue that positively engaging rural populations in REDD+ may be integral to the effectiveness of programs in reducing deforestation and degradation, and enhancing forest carbon stores. Future research should aim to identify the causal mechanisms (policies and institutions) responsible for positive socioeconomic and ecological impacts in REDD+, while testing key theories that link participation to conservation and development outcomes.