Early project-level initiatives of ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’ (REDD+) have left a negative impression among many forest-dependent peoples (FDP) across the tropics. As countries move towards national-level implementation and results-based payments, it is timely to analyze the effects of ‘national REDD+’ on FDP. We use Guyana’s technically approved United Nations Forest Reference Emission Level (FREL) submission and Opt-In Mechanism to assess how fifteen indigenous communities with tenured forestland may financially benefit from national REDD+, and evaluate whether, and to what extent, Guyana forms a best-case scenario. In addition, we provide a first-time assessment whether field estimates of the average carbon density of mature forests managed by fifteen forest-dependent communities (beyond rotational farming lands) equals that of nearby unmanaged mature forest, as this could affect REDD+ payment levels. We conclude that, notwithstanding some pending issues, Guyana’s national REDD+ program could be very beneficial for FDP, even under a modest United States (US) $5 unit carbon price. We present economic evidence to support forest governance change domestically in sovereign developing countries that may ease FDP tenure and national REDD+ implementation. The average carbon density was locally substantially less in FDP-managed forest, but had little effect on the overall carbon stock of the titled forest area, and is considered modest when incorporating ecological and socioeconomic attributes. Partnerships with FDP when combined with advances in remote sensing could have potential for economic monitoring of forest emissions across the tropics.