Belize Coastal Plan a Model for the World

By Stacey Solie | April 20, 2016

Belize recently approved a coastal management plan that’s projected to improve coastal protection from storms and increase revenue from fisheries and tourism. At the same time, the plan improves protection for mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds—the natural capital upon which the coast depends.

In February, Katie Arkema flew to Belize to celebrate the central government’s approval of the country’s new coastal plan.

The endorsement by Belize’s deputy prime minister, essentially the vice-president, marks a major milestone for Belize, for the Natural Capital Project, and for coastal planning. Fanny Douvere of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) dubbed the plan “one of the most forward-thinking ocean management plans in the world.”

Arkema and other Marine Team NatCap staff started working behind the scenes in Belize more than six years ago to do the science and community engagement underpinning this plan. The most exciting thing about the announcement, Arkema said, was the public recognition by the government that coastal resources are fundamental to their national economic development.

“In order to sustain a growing population and develop their country in a way that reflects what their constituencies really want, they’re counting on the benefits that these ecosystems are providing,” Arkema said.

One of the biggest challenges of good coastal planning is coordinating across many government agencies. The status quo is for each agency to make decisions without consulting other agencies.

Multi-sectoral planning, that takes into account how mangrove forest management impacts fisheries, or how agriculture impacts water quality, for example, is complicated, and can quickly become overwhelming.

Yet, identifying how all those sectors interact, and getting managers on the same page, is what Belizean law under the Coastal Zone Act of 2000 required of their new coastal plan. It’s also exactly what NatCap’s InVEST software is designed to do. And helping all the people in all those sectors find common ground is what NatCap’s iterative, stakeholder-driven approach is for.

“In Belize, we were being presented with the perfect chance to see if what we thought would work in theory would work in real life,” said Arkema.

Arkema remembers meeting Chantalle Clarke-Samuels, now CEO of the country’s Integrated Coastal Zone Management Institute and Authority (CZMAI). Early in their work together, Clarke-Samuels walked her, name by name, through a long list of representatives from each Ministry that would sit on the Board of CZMAI and would have to approve the plan before it could be passed up the political chain. Clarke-Samuels also described the key elements of the Coastal Zone Act, passed in 2000, which called for the plan to be spatial, cross-sectoral, and science-based.

“That was the first time I really began to understand Chantalle’s vision for the plan—and her pragmatism,” Arkema said.

Another key person who needed to be on board with this plan was the CZMAI’s then-CEO, Vincent Gillett, who was also at that time Chantalle’s boss.

Arkema recalls staying up all night prepping for a meeting with Mr. Gillett.

CZMAI and NatCap had jointly led a training workshop in Belize City for several fisheries department and NGO representatives. At the workshop, they hashed out different management scenarios for Turneffe Atoll, among the largest and most biologically diverse coral reefs in the world, looking at impacts of different development and conservation-based futures.

Natural Capital Project Senior Scientist Katie Arkema celebrates passage of the plan with Chantalle Clarke-Samuels, CEO of Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute.

As part of the planning process, Belizean stakeholders mapped out key fishing areas and developed a vision for the future of the coast.

The people of Belize had already indicated that what they most cared about was improving coastal resilience from storms, lobster harvest, and tourism revenues.

“If we were going to illustrate the power of our approach for understanding how changes in coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrasses—under different scenarios of tourism development—would affect the things they cared about most, we’d need to actually produce some results,” Arkema said.

So NatCap scientists both in Belize for the training and back in the US stayed up overnight digitizing recommendations from participants, running models, and creating maps and tables highlighting how, under different scenarios, nature’s flow of benefits to the Belizean people shifted.

“We thought we’d have 30 minutes of the CEO’s time to get our messages across, but he became so engrossed in our presentation that he stayed with us for three hours,” Arkema said.

“Having the maps, data, and the actual dollar values for the role that the habitats play in the economy gives the ecosystem services a seat at the table, to be considered. For example, we explored where the areas are that really need to be protected because they provide critical habitat for spiny lobsters, the target of an important fishery. This information gives the CZMAI—an entity charged with managing the coastal zone—evidence to show decision-makers and their stakeholders that key habitats support this critical part of the economy, which is the export value of spiny lobsters.”

Gillett was particularly interested in the maps showing where fishery production was greatest and how that would change with different development scenarios in the future. Fisheries was one of the key agencies whose support they would need to pass the plan, and he saw this new information as a way to communicate with key decision-makers.

Communication through maps was an avenue through which he could envision relaying how habitats within the jurisdiction of CZMAI supported spiny lobster populations, which in turn supported fishers and was thus important to the local constituency.

But the team didn’t stop at lobster. They also explored how changes in coral, seagrass, and mangrove habitat—and different scenarios of management of those habitats—would lead to changes in the amounts and monetary values of tourism and protection from storms.

Arkema summed up the work saying, “All the pieces fell in place to really allow for us to spend the time working with a really effective partner to co-develop the science needed to directly address the policy question: ‘Where do we site multiple uses and activities to reduce risk to ecosystem services and enhance benefits to people now and in the future?’

“That is a big question that people are facing with marine planning, and we were able to work very closely as a group of scientists and practitioners to use ecosystem services information to answer that question, within a stakeholder driven process.”

“A lot of times coastal ecosystems get sidelined, when in fact so many countries around the world are coastal nations, and their coastal ecosystems are a huge part of their economy and their well being. Belize sets a global example for how any nation can account for the role that coastal ecosystems play.”

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.

Katie Arkema, Ph.D.

Katie Arkema, Ph.D.


Katie leads several efforts around the world to develop and use science about how nature benefits people to inform problems humans face in managing coastal and marine ecosystems. Katie is particularly interested in the ability of coastal ecosystems to protect vulnerable communities from sea level rise and storms, while providing other services such as nursery habitat for fisheries and tourism opportunities. Her research is informing national development planning, climate adaptation and investments in restoration and conservation in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Katie received her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and her B.A. in ecology with a minor in Latin American studies from Princeton University. She is a recent recipient of a Fulbright NEXUS scholarship.