The local turn in good governance theory and practice responded to critiques of the ineffectiveness of state management and the inequity of privatization alternatives in natural resource management. Confounding expectations of greater effectiveness from decentralised governance, including community-based natural resource management, however, critics argue that expanded opportunities for elite capture have become widely associated with program failures. This overview of theoretical controversies on leadership, patronage and elite capture is part of a themed section in this issue that challenges assumptions across a wide range of current policy literature. It introduces a set of Indonesian case studies that examine practices of local leaders and elites and seek to account in structural terms for appropriations both by (‘elite capture’) and of (‘captured elites’) these key figures. These studies explore the structural factors and co-governance practices most likely to promote effective participation of the full spectrum of local interests in pursuit of better local natural resource governance.