Sustainable Coastal Development

The Belizean government used InVEST to engage stakeholders and devise a plan that improves coastal protection, tourism and lobster revenues, while also reducing human impacts on coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.

Now other countries are looking to do the same.



The Challenge

Forty percent of Belizeans live along the coast where livelihoods heavily depend upon fishing and tourism. The country’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute has a mandate to devise a national coastal management plan that will secure a sustainable future across sectors. However, the agency lacked a scientific method for highlighting trade-offs and comparing how well people would fare under different management options.

Using a NatCap Approach

Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute engaged stakeholders to envision potential futures and used the InVEST suite of software to map where reefs were providing protection from storms, where mangroves provided nurseries for fish, and other ecosystem services. They also explored how resources and revenues are likely to change in the future under various management scenarios and used these to envision trade-offs and inform decisions.


InVEST analyses showed that coastal systems currently protect the shore from about $5 billion BZD in damage each year; tourists spend two million days in the coastal zone and lobster catches total 520,000 pounds annually. Once the Coastal Plan is implemented, our research, published in PNAS, indicates that more land will be protected; revenues from tourism and fishing will rise; and development-related impacts to seagrasses, mangroves and corals will decrease. Other countries are now looking to Belize as inspiration for their own planning.

The Challenge

Belize is home to the longest coral reef system in the western hemisphere. It also is fringed by mangrove forests that support robust commercial fisheries and stunning beaches that attract people from around the globe. The government of Belize decided nearly two decades ago, through the passage of the visionary Coastal Zone Management Act, to create a coastal management and development plan that would allow for economic growth, while protecting current livelihoods and the country’s cultural and natural heritage.

Belize wanted a plan that would create “a sustainable future where healthy ecosystems would support and are supported by thriving communities and a vibrant economy.” To achieve this, planners needed to be able to understand where and how coastal resources benefit people today, and how these benefits might change relative to each other in response to human activities.

We wanted to ensure that our plan would facilitate the continued delivery of ecosystem services to people, and that it would bolster the national economy by prioritizing investments in long-term sustainable development.  The cutting-edge science, in particular the suite of InVEST ecosystem service tools, and the pioneering approach of The Natural Capital Project helped us achieve this objective.

Chantalle Clarke-Samuels

Chief Executive Officer, Coastal Zone Management Authority of Belize

Using a Natural Capital Approach

Coastal planners needed to know where valuable resources are located, and which are most critical for achieving a development plan with multiple–potentially conflicting–human well-being and ecosystem goals at the same time. To inform its public engagement and planning process, the CZMAI asked The Natural Capital Project to help by mapping and modeling marine resources, the benefits (or ecosystem services) they provide to people, and by using community values to create hypothetical scenarios to describe alternative futures under different management directions.

Through extensive stakeholder engagement, CZMAI and NatCap mapped the countries’ major ecosystems and human activities by region, and then created three scenarios 25 years into a hypothetical future. One future depicted the benefits to people if conservation was prioritized, another depicted a future where tourism and other development took top priority, and a third, dubbed the “Informed Management” scenario, which is currently under formal consideration by the Belizean government. The preferred scenario blends strong conservation goals with current and future needs for coastal development and marine uses. The iterative science-policy engagement between CZMAI and NatCap helped determine: What ecosystem services are delivered now and under future scenarios? How do ecosystem services vary among regions, and can we use these results to adjust where human activities occur to reduce risk to habitats and enhance services?


The Belize-NatCap collaboration showed that current ecosystems protect the shorelines from about $5 billion in erosion damage every year. Although the development scenario brought in high revenues for the country, these gains were counteracted by the projected dangers and increased property damage from storms as protective coral reef and seagrass habitats are reduced to 10 percent of their current area. This high development scenario also leads to significant loss of fishing habitats, all of which conflict with the national vision for a shared, sustainable future. Conversely, although the conservation scenario led to increases in mangroves and seagrass beds, and caused fishing revenues to rise by 50 percent, tourism and other revenue growth was minimal.

These trade-offs point to the Informed Management scenario as having the most promise for meeting Belize’s multiple goals. This scenario allows tourism revenues to triple, a 50% increase in coastal protection, modest increases in fishing revenue, and increases in the area of important habitats. Further refinement that took into account where services were originating and zoning accordingly created an additional 25% increase in expected coastal protection from storms and a doubling of fishing revenue over the earlier estimations.

The country is currently moving forward in its legislative process to adopt and implement the plan, with great promise for advancing the well-being of people through targeted development, and protection of nature.

Other countries have been inspired by Belize’s management plan. With support from the Inter-American Development Bank, The Bahamas is also engaging NatCap to provide science and capacity building for its development planning process on Andros Island. This endeavor may serve as a pilot process for a larger national development planning effort.