Deforestation drives climate change and reinforces food insecurity in forest dependent communities. What drives deforestation varies by location and is shaped
by livelihood systems. But how locals perceive restoration is crucial for developing
restoration policies. Evidence suggests that applying sustainable farming strategies
can potentially restore forests and sustain livelihoods. Applying a broad-based conceptualization of deforestation and restoration in policymaking, however, results in missed opportunities for addressing deforestation and restoration. Here, we explore the drivers of deforestation, the perceptions of restoration, and the challenges to restoration among smallholder farmers in northern Malawi and examine how agroecology can contribute to restoring degraded agroecosystems. Participants report agricultural land expansion, charcoal production, climate change, burnt brick production, and government subsidies as the major drivers of deforestation. We observed that although perceptions of forest restoration reflect farmers' traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to include reclamation of degraded farmlands, reconstruction of native tree species, and replacement of felled trees on farmlands, there are challenges including splitting families to gain access to more subsidized fertilizers and food aid, embedded cultural practices, growing demand for charcoal in cities, and weak ecosystem governance structures that hinder the effectiveness of restoration efforts. We, however, do find that agroecological intensification can increase yield from smaller farmlands and allow for larger and longer-lasting fallows of spare lands which regenerate forests. Key overarching implications of these findings include the need to integrate livelihoods more explicitly into restoration plans, accounting for TEK in restoration policies in forest-dependent communities and encouraging the adoption of agroecology.