With the increasing need to restore former agricultural lands worldwide and in the tropics, in particular, it is critical to explore different models for how to restore these lands in a cost-effective manner which best simulates natural forest recovery and provides for human livelihoods. We propose that agro-successional restoration, which we define as incorporating a range of agroecology and agroforestry techniques as a transition phase early in forest restoration, could be used more widely to overcome socioeconomic and ecological obstacles to restoring these lands. Over centuries, farmers and scientists have developed various agroforestry techniques that aim to cultivate crops and trees, in a range of crop types, time periods of cultivation (a few years to several decades), and complexity of species planted. The management practices used in these systems, such as weeding and increasing soil fertility, parallel those used in many forest restoration efforts. The synergism between these approaches is evidenced by many existing agro-successional examples currently used by smallholders in the tropics. Benefits of the agro-successional model include extending the management period of restoration, offsetting some management costs, providing food security for small landholders, and involving small landholders in the restoration process.