Relationships are the elementary forms of social life that animate structures and processes between and among individuals, groups and institutions, and are in turn transformed by them. Relationships between forest dependent peoples (FP) and state forest management institutions (FD) are central to forestry practice yet seldom the focus of research studies. Whereas decentralization and participatory institutions have received much attention in research and practice, relationships that underpin them have remained largely unaddressed. This paper utilizes an adaptation of the systematic review method to synthesize findings on the nature of this relationship in the Global South. We reviewed 135 articles published between 1997 and 2017, selected following a systematic article search and selection protocol on JSTOR and Google Scholar. History, as expected, is a living referent in shaping contemporary relations, accounting for tremendous diversity across the Global South. We identified key concepts from literature across this diversity, and synthesized them using five overlapping thematic codes: (a) asymmetries of power; (b) access to and control over productive resources; (c) knowledge, perceptions and attitudes; (d) stratification and heterogeneity; and (e) external influences. Numerical analysis of article meta-data revealed that research is attentive to the FP-FD relationship primarily in the context of decentralization or community participatory policies and projects. Well-designed policies, projects, institutions and effective individuals create opportunities for partial, temporary and symbolic transformation in the FP-FD relationship. However, structural power asymmetry between FD and FP, historically established, and reproduced through social inequalities and hierarchies, sustains. The content of social relationships overflow sector specific transformations. Reflecting on the scope of systematic review as method in synthesis of qualitative research, we found that although loss of context specificity is a disadvantage, systematic review can be productively adapted to explore neglected issues as we do in our study with relationships, through analysis of empirical data in studies with other objectives. © 2019 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd.