The relationship between biodiversity and the activities of small-scale farmers remains poorly understood despite its importance for conservation. In tropical forest areas farmers often include extraction of forest products in their subsistence strategies, and it has been suggested that factors such as market access and diversity levels influence people's use of forest products. To investigate these relationships, we studied the use of palms in five villages inhabited by colonists and indigenous Shuar in the lower montane forest in south-eastern Ecuador by means of interviews and line transects around the villages. We found that use of palms was not driven by the diversity of palms available in the forest surrounding each village. Instead, the most important factor seemed to be lack of market access so in villages furthest away from the nearest road people used more palm products for their subsistence life compared to villages closer to the road. Forests around more remote villages had higher utility levels when evaluated on the basis of the villagers' use of palms, despite lower levels of palm diversity and richness in these forests. The lower diversity levels may reflect past human activity or ecological factors, or a combination of both. In either case, our results show that forests with higher diversity levels are not necessarily more valuable to local people compared to less diverse forests. Instead, socio-economic factors such as market access may be more important in shaping people's relationship with the natural environment.