Mining contributes importantly to tropical deforestation and land degradation. To mitigate these effects, mining companies are increasingly obliged to restore abandoned mine lands, but factors driving restoration success are hardly evaluated. Here, we investigate the influence of ecological factors (restoration age, soil properties and surrounding forest area) and management factors (diversity and density of planted species, mine zone) on the recovery rate of forest structure and tree diversity on 40 post-mining restoration areas in Southern Amazonia, Brazil, using a 9-year annual monitoring dataset consisting of over 25 000 trees. We found that recovery of forest structure was closely associated with interactions between soil quality and the planted tree communities, and that tree diversity recovery was positively associated with the amount of surrounding forests. We also observed that forest structure and diversity recover more slowly in mine tailings compared to pit surroundings. Our study confirms the complexity of mine land restoration but also reveals that planting design and soil improvement can increase restoration success. For resource-efficient mine restoration, we recommend the focusing of efforts on tailings, which are hardest to restore, and reducing efforts in pit surroundings and areas close to surrounding forest because of their potential for restoration by natural regeneration. This article is part of the theme issue 'Understanding forest landscape restoration: reinforcing scientific foundations for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration'.