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Globalization is often associated with deforestation, but its impacts on forest recovery are less known. We analyzed socioeconomic data, land-use surveys, and satellite imagery to monitor changes in woody cover in El Salvador from the early 1990s to the present. Even where rural population density exceeded 250 people per square kilometer, we documented a 22% increase in the area with more than 30% tree cover, and a 7% increase in the area with more than 60% tree cover. Woodland resurgence reflected processes including civil war, retraction of the agricultural frontier, and international migration and associated remittances. Agrarian reform, structural adjustment, and emerging environmental ideas also played a role in woodland dynamics. Remittances may be especially important for woodland recovery in El Salvador, enabling people in rural areas to buy food without all of them needing to grow and sell it. This study adds to our understanding of the complexity of land-use change in emerging globalized economies and of potential conservation approaches for inhabited landscapes.