In a study of the traditional livelihoods of 12 Monpa and Brokpa villages in Arunachal Pradesh, India using social–ecological and participatory rural appraisal techniques, we found that the forest tree species paisang (Quercus griffithii, a species of oak) is vital to agroecosystem sustainability. Paisang trees are conserved both by individuals and through community governance, because their leaves play a crucial role in sustaining 11 traditional cropping systems of the Monpa peoples. An Indigenous institution, Chhopa, regulates access to paisang leaves, ensuring that the relationship between paisang and traditional field crop species within Monpa agroecosystems is sustainable. The Monpa farmers also exchange leaves and agricultural products for yak-based foods produced by the transhumant Brokpa, who are primarily yak herders. Yak herds also graze in paisang groves during winter. These practices have enabled the conservation of about 33 landraces, yak breeds, and a number of wild plants. Paisang thus emerged as a culturally important keystone species in the cultures and livelihoods of both Monpa and Brokpa. Ecological and conservation knowledge and ethics about paisang vary with gender, social systems, and altitudes. Labor shortages, however, have already caused some changes to the ways in which paisang leaves are used and yak grazing patterns are also changing in the face of changes in attitude among local landowners. Given new competing interests, incentives schemes are now needed to conserve the ecologically sustainable traditional livelihoods.