Acknowledging the diversity of preferences, goals and motivations of individuals is key to promote the effectiveness of incentive-based conservation interventions. This paper analyses the heterogeneity of motivations to adopt silvopastoral practices, a social-ecological innovation for soil conservation and carbon emission reduction. We use Q methodology to identify smallholders’ views with regard to these practices in a community in the forest frontier in Chiapas (Mexico). The analysis uncovers three main perspectives: self-sufficient pioneers, environmentally-conscious followers and payment-dependent conservatives. We discuss these perspectives around three topics: smallholders’ predisposition to adopt silvopastoral practices, their views about needing external payments to sustain their livelihood and the diffusion of innovative sustainable practices. We relate these perspectives with livelihood characteristics and with observed adoption levels under a pilot programme to promote silvopasture. Our findings suggest that incentives other than payments may be more appropriate for those more likely to adopt, and that payments could encourage rent-seeking strategies and not necessarily promote permanent behavioural change. We suggest ways for designing more effective and adaptive environmental conservation programmes to foster adoption and continuation of social-ecological innovations.