This paper presents a new synthesis of the role of native and non-native species in diverse pathways and processes that influence forest regeneration on anthropogenic grassland in the moist tropics. Because of altered species composition, abiotic conditions and landscape habitat mosaics, together with human interventions, these successional pathways differ from those seen in pre-clearing forests. However, representation of different functional life forms of plant (tree, vine, grass, herb and fern) and animal (frugivorous seed disperser, granivorous seed predator, seedling herbivore and carnivore) shows consistent global variation among areas of pasture, intact forest, and post-grassland regrowth. Biotic webs of interaction involve complex indirect influences and feedbacks, which can account for wide observed variation in regeneration trajectories over time. Important processes include: limitation of tree establishment by dense grasses; recruitment and growth of pioneer pasture trees (shading grasses and facilitating bird-assisted seed dispersal); and smothering of trees by vines. In these interactions, species’ functional roles are more important than their biogeographic origins. Case studies in eastern Australia show native rain forest plant species diversity in all life forms increasing over time when pioneer trees are non-native (e.g., Cinnamomum camphora, Solanum mauritianum), concurrent with decreased grass and fern cover and increased abundance of trees and vine tangles. The global literature shows both native and non-native species facilitating and inhibiting regeneration. However conservation goals are often targeted at removing non-native species. Achieving large-scale tropical forest restoration will require increased recognition of their multiple roles, and compromises about allocating resources to their removal.