The paper introduces the Special Issue of International Forestry Review, Smallholders and forest landscape transitions: Locally devised development strategies of the tropical Americas. It reviews the existing knowledge on the role of smallholders in rural development, and then contrasts this with the major insights gained from the studies presented in this Special Issue. The paper shows that while there is opportunity to more actively engage smallholders in local development and environmental protection of tropical America, this requires major changes in policy design and implementation. Within the prevailing policy frameworks only a smaller proportion of smallholder families can become economically successful, providing they receive the right support. If policy frameworks are better adapted to the needs and capacities of smallholders, their role in regional sustainable development can be significantly boosted. Whether such a shift of the policy framework is likely in a world where relevant policy mechanisms are dominated by decision makers representing the interests of the societies in urban and developed contexts is an open question. The fact that also these societies will be increasingly faced with the severe effects of climate change, poverty migration, financial crises and food insecurity give grounds for a cautious optimism that more integrative approaches to rural development will be pursued that put smallholders of tropical America and elsewhere, and nature at the centre.