Abstract In late 2001 a category 3 cyclone impacted forest plots that were established in Tonga in 1995, and additionally, one plot was accidentally burned by an escaped land-clearing fire. Subsequent surveys provide observations of 10 years of forest dynamics in this poorly studied region, and the first reported observations of large interannual variation in juvenile (seedling and sapling) abundance in the western tropical Pacific. The severely disturbed (burned) plot was initially colonized by a non-native early pioneer, Carica papaya L., but 3.5 years later a native pioneer, Macaranga harveyana (Muell. Arg.) Muell. Arg., was the most abundant tree species. The seedling layer included some long-lived pioneers and shade-tolerant species. Two mature forest plots affected only by the cyclone changed very little over a decade. Late-successional shade-tolerant species that dominated the overstory were also abundant as seedlings and saplings. This is in contrast with a 30- to 40-year-old, formerly cultivated, secondary forest plot that still shows no recruitment of late-successional dominants, in spite of the proximity of remnant forest patches. This study suggests differing pathways of succession following shifting cultivation versus cyclone and fire disturbances in Tonga. Land use legacies appear to have a long-lasting effect on community composition.