Conservation practitioners are increasingly faced with the need to compensate resource users because of restrictions imposed on access and use of natural resources. The idea that direct payments may facilitate compensation more effectively than a programme based upon income substitution is questioned through examining two direct payments initiatives in an Indonesian marine national park. Elite capture of the direct payments process was facilitated in a context characterized by malleable state institutions and powerful private business interests, thereby disadvantaging key resource-dependent groups. The ecological benefits of direct payments initiatives and of protected areas were compromised through the emphasis on business priorities rather than environmental criteria. These difficulties were mitigated through taking account of existing practices regarding resource access, ensuring equal distribution of benefits and introducing new systems gradually over a period of time through trusted individuals, thereby facilitating the acceptance of direct payments initiatives amongst key user groups. © Foundation for Environmental Conservation 2013.