This study examines struggles to bring people back into protected forests to enhance sustainable forest management and livelihoods using insights emerging from a co-management project in Malawi. It uses mixed social science methods and a process-based conceptualization of co-management to analyze experiences, and theory of reciprocal altruism to explain major findings of continuing local forest-user commitment to co-management despite six years of conservation burdens largely for minimal financial benefits. It argues that overemphasis on cash incentives as the
motivation for “self-interested” users to participate in co-management overlooks locally significant non-cash motivations, inflates local expectations, and creates perverse incentives that undermine socio-ecological goals. Some non-cash incentives outweighed cash-driven ones. Findings support broadening of incentives mechanisms, including via nested cross-scale institutional arrangements for holistic management that integrates adjacent forests into forest-reserve co-management. Strengthened institutions, improving community/government and intra-community trust, improved village forests easing pressure on the reserve, measures minimizing elite capture, and impetus from an external threat, enhanced forest condition. Generous forest rights and appropriate community licensing and benefit-sharing systems also helped. Bureaucratic/donor inefficiencies, wood-extraction challenges, poor forest-based enterprise development, and low resource value undermined performance. Insights on forest-management planning, fair cost-sharing, targeting the poor, and need for social learning are highlighted.