Ignoring the role forests play in local livelihood strategies can undermine restoration success.
Under the Bonn Challenge, the government of Malawi committed to reforest over 30% of the country by 2030, but at least in the south, few trees planted under government projects survive. To understand why these efforts fail and how to turn the tide, eight focus groups with stakeholders from across the poverty spectrum were organized. Citizens living in forest-adjacent villages, forest researchers from the government and university, and government staff from agricultural extension programs were separated into small groups to address two questions: What has kept forest restoration in Malawi from being socially or ecologically successful? What is the one thing that will be critical to "get right" in order for future restoration efforts to have socially and ecologically beneficial outcomes? Each group developed a Bayesian Belief Network-basically, a conceptual map of the one critical thing and the factors that affect the outcome. Seven groups identified the same reforestation barrier: poverty. Multiple groups agreed that training and funding for entrepreneurs, access to improved agricultural technologies, and alternative employment opportunities were crucial to poverty alleviation. Citizens and practitioners emphasized that until Malawi's government invests in economic development in forest-adjacent communities, the poor have no back-up livelihood strategies except exploiting forest lands, undermining reforestation. This study suggests that diverse stakeholders shared a lot of common ground when they envisioned solutions, and that giving the poor a voice in reforestation planning is imperative to addressing underlying socioeconomic problems, preempting conflicts, and poising future reforestation efforts for success in drawing down carbon.