Madagascar is regarded as one of the most important areas for biodiversity on Earth, and this biodiversity is found mainly in Madagascar’s forests. Rural Malagasy people struggle to meet their daily food needs and often turn to the forest for new agricultural land. Efforts to curb deforestation and conserve threatened and endangered species undertaken by the Malagasy government and by international conservation and development organizations have been shaped by the history of forest management in the country. This paper traces the evolution of forest management in Madagascar from pre-colonial times to the present in an effort to contextualize current efforts to create new protected areas and transfer forest management responsibilities from the central government to local communities. In addition, the history of forest management is critically examined with respect to the assumptions about the role of government and the governed, as well as the dominant narrative that drove policy, providing context for understanding the approach currently underway in Madagascar.