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Mangroves are critically important forests both for the unique biodiversity that they support and for the host of benefits that they provide to humanity. These benefits include food security from fisheries, coastal protection from storms, shore stabilization, water filtration, and production of durable building materials and fuelwood. Hundreds of millions of coastal people rely on mangroves for their day-to-day livelihoods, yet in many tropical coastal developing states mangroves are being deforested at a rate of 1–2% per year; in Southeast Asia deforestation rates averaged 1.8% between 2000 and 2012. Mangrove loss is eroding coastlines and coastal livelihoods, as well as the capacity of coastal people to face the impacts of climate change. Indonesia possesses the largest coverage of mangroves on earth, yet aquaculture and coastal development, unsustainable timber harvesting and oil palm encroachment have led to the loss of 40% of Indonesia’s mangroves over the last three decades.

Our study looked to provide an innovative framework to evaluate a holistic conservation approach on the world’s third largest island – Borneo. The holistic program under evaluation sought to improve livelihoods, public health, and education while simultaneously engaging coastal communities in fisheries management and mangrove conservation. We present a participatory impact assessment (PIA) framework that evaluated the outcomes of an integrated multi-dimensional community-led conservation initiative. In essence, a PIA is a simple concept, “Ask the participants of the program to identify what changes they saw, and what activities contributed to those changes.”  The PIA was useful as it gained direct insights into individual perspectives around the social, economic, and environmental changes individuals witnessed over the past three years as the program was implemented. Community members reported improved income, health, education and the creation of a locally-led natural resource management system. Members also reported improved crab harvest rates and reduced mangrove deforestation. Results revealed an important finding for the field of conservation – that by addressing social and economic hardships faced by individuals, we can open up doors to involving even some of the poorest coastal communities in conservation activities. This study supports global claims that social, economic and environmental sectors cannot work independently of each other, and that we need greater collaboration across sectors if we are to effectively address some of the world’s most pressing problems.