In the Central Amazon we investigated whether seedling performance (survival, and relative growth rates in height and leaf numbers) was affected by initial seedling size (height and leaf numbers) in habitats that varied in their degree of human disturbance: cattle pasture, young secondary forest, 1-ha forest fragment and old-growth forest. Additionally, effects of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), litter standing crop (LSC) and insect herbivory were evaluated 12 mo after transplantation in seedlings from the native canopy trees Chrysophyllum pomiferum, Micropholis venulosa and Pouteria caimito. Seedling performance changed rank across the understorey environment depending on species. Seedlings of Chrysophyllum thrived in all conditions but under high PAR, Micropholis thrived only in intermediate light conditions, whereas Pouteria thrived under high PAR. Effects of initial seedling size, PAR and herbivory after 1 y were specific to species, whereas LSC had no effect on performance. Initially larger seedlings resulted in lower survival for Chrysophyllum and Pouteria. Herbivory affected seedling performance in all species. Negative effects of herbivory were intensified under low PAR. Overall, our results showed that, as seedlings, species of the same family and characteristic of old-growth forests respond differently to the environmental constraints present in contrasting human-disturbed conditions. Larger seedlings may not always present greater tolerance to physical and biotic mortality risks.