Distribution and procedure, two core social justice concepts, are central concerns for the design and practice of payments for ecosystem services (PESs). This paper explores the relationship between local conceptions of justice and the more globally referenced justice principles embedded in the design of PES schemes. The importance of this is that perceptions of justness are powerful determinants of human behaviour and, consequently, many environmental conflicts arise from contested visions of what constitutes ‘just’ environmental management. With that in mind we propose that PES schemes built on conceptions of justice that broadly align with those of prospective service providers will be better received than those that do not. In order to explore differences in justice conceptions, we specify three commonly defined dimensions of environmental justice: distribution, procedure and recognition. We predict that there will be differences in the importance different actors place on these different dimensions of justice and also differences in how each particular dimension is conceived. We interview 80 randomly selected respondents from a PES case in Rwanda and relate their views about justice to the design of the PES. Our findings challenge the implicit universalism in many market-based conservation interventions: that imposed framings of justice will resonate with local ones. They also challenge the assumption that different dimensions of justice are always mutually supporting – the fallacy of the rising tide that lifts all boats. We also conclude that an environmental justice framing provides a fruitful new analytical approach for research into global forest conservation efforts.