The Mountain-River-Lake Program (MRL) was implemented since 25 years ago in the Poyang Lake basin, southern China. It consists of series of forest restoration projects that aim to address severe soil and water losses, and improve farmer’s livelihoods. To assess the effectiveness of the program, systematic planning, integrated research and comprehensive monitoring were used to illustrate how forest restoration projects that consider both ecological, social and economic perspectives can improve both the environment and society, and eradicate the “ecological-poverty trap”. We found that the overall ecological effects of the program are beneficial, and the socioeconomic effects are mostly positive. Forest plantations covering 4.92 × 106 ha were established, which promoted increased forest coverage from a minimum of 26.98% to 60.05% at present. The amount of carbon storage in forest increased significantly, with net carbon sequestration of plantation forests increased from 2.29 TgC/year to 10.52 TgC/year. The results also indicated that the area of land affected by heavy and severe soil erosion has decreased by 55.2% and 53.6%, respectively, while the water holding capacity was 25.2% higher in 2009 than that in 1990. The net income for farmers was almost 6 times greater than that before the program, and the number of people living below the poverty line decreased from 10 million to 0.865 million. This assessment has confirmed that if we cannot improve the livelihood of local communities and encourage them to participate in such programs, we will be unable to restore and manage degraded environments. The continuing and future impacts of the program may be even greater, and will provide important lessons and experiences for other ecological restoration programs.