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Social–ecological benefits of land–sea planning at multiple scales in Mesoamerica


Deforestation impacts the ecosystem services provided by downstream coral reefs to coastal communities in multiple ways, such as through increased sedimentation and nutrification. However, connections between terrestrial and marine ecosystems are generally assessed at a single scale and from an ecological perspective alone, limiting our understanding of how watershed management affects the benefits accrued by coastal communities at different scales. Here we explore how ecological and societal benefits of watershed interventions (restoration, protection and sustainable agriculture) differ when considered regionally versus nationally in the Mesoamerican Reef region, by using linked land–sea ecosystem service models. Results from a regional approach prioritize implementing interventions in larger multinational watersheds, leading to neighbouring nations benefiting from increased sediment retention and healthy corals. For the national prioritization approach, selecting for smaller watersheds within individual countries resulted in more societal benefits, particularly increased coastal protection and nature-based tourism, at the cost of improved coral health for neighbouring nations. We demonstrate how planning at multiple scales across the region can improve ecosystem and societal benefits, resulting in win–win outcomes.

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Fig. 1: Linked land–sea ecosystem service models coupled with an optimization tool.
Fig. 2: Mapping changes in coral health and societal benefits across land and sea under the watershed restoration intervention.
Fig. 3: Level of watershed importance for maximizing the provisioning of marine benefits under each watershed intervention at the regional and national scales.
Fig. 4: Prioritized watershed interventions under regional and national scale land–sea planning approach.
Fig. 5: Differences in ecosystem service provisioning resulting from the implementation of watershed interventions under different planning scales.
Fig. 6: Mapping the change in extent of healthy coral habitat (>10% coral cover) from the implementation of watershed interventions in target areas under a regional and national land–sea planning scale.

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Data availability

The ecosystem service and optimization data are available through figshare at (ref. 87).

Code availability

Links for downloading ROOT and the InVEST open-source software are available at The source code is available at (ref. 88). Statistical analyses were performed using the software packages R ( v.4.0.2 and are available at (ref. 89) and ArcGIS Desktop ( v.10.8 with Advanced licensing and extensions Spatial Analyst and Geostatistical Analyst.


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This study was funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) Smart Coasts SA008126 (J.M.S.D., J.M.S., S.A.W., K.K.A., S.G.W., A.B.); the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (J.M.S.D., J.M.S., K.K.A.); the National Science Foundation Coastline and People prime agreement no./FAIN no. 2104-1376-00-C, 2209284/220928 (J.M.S.D.); and the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation (J.M.S.). The International Climate Initiative (IKI) Smart Coasts supported WWF Washington DC and WWF Mesoamerica (no. 12122 (original 19020); N.B., L.C., P.V., M.A.P., R.B.) and WWF MEX (no. 12120 (original 19017); A.C.V.V.). Healthy Reefs for Healthy People and ecological data collection was supported largely by the Summit Foundation no. 505217 (M.M.) and CORESCCAM BNP-PARIBAS foundation (philanthropy agreement 2020-00000009236; A.I.M.-C.). We thank A. Guerry (The Natural Capital Project at Stanford University), L. Bremer (University of Hawai’i) and A. Giro (Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, Guatemela) for providing feedback on this article. We also thank G. Verutes for helping with data gathering and workflow development.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors were involved in the conceptualization and methodology, and contributed to reviewing and editing. J.M.S.D., J.M.S., S.G.W., S.A.W., A.B. and K.K.A. conducted the formal analysis. J.M.S.D., J.M.S., S.G.W. and K.K.A. led the writing of the original draft. J.M.S.D., J.M.S., S.G.W., S.A.W., A.B. and K.K.A. developed computer code and software for the ecosystem service and optimization models. N.B., L.C., A.C.V.V., P.V., M.A.P., R.B., M.M. and A.I.M.-C. provided data and inputs on the design and implementation of the watershed interventions, ecosystem service and optimization models.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jade M. S. Delevaux.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Increase in ecological and societal benefits provided by the watershed interventions across the full opportunity areas.

The benefits include sediment retention (tonne per year), coastal tourism (number of people/year), extent in area (ha) of healthy coral habitat (coral percent cover > 10%), targeted fish biomass (tonne per hectare), marine tourism (number of people/year), and coastal protection (number of kilometer). (Note: Coastal tourism under sustainable agriculture was not modeled. Marine tourism was modeled for the three countries).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Mapping change of ecosystem services and coral health under the watershed protection intervention.

(a) Increase in sediment retention, by watershed, in response to the watershed protection intervention (darker blue represents greater sediment retention), and associated reduction in marine Total Suspended Sediment (TSS) (darker green represents greatest reduction in TSS), (b) increase in area (ha) of healthy coral habitat (>10% coral cover) (summarized at 1,000 ha grid cells), (c) increase in coastal forest-based tourism, and increases in (d) coastal protection, (e) targeted fish biomass, and (f) marine tourism, relative to current conditions.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Mapping change of ecosystem services and coral health under the sustainable agriculture intervention.

(a) Increase in sediment retention, by watershed, in response to the sustainable agriculture intervention (darker blue represents greater sediment retention), and associated reduction in marine Total Suspended Sediment (TSS) (darker green represents greatest reduction in TSS), (b) increase in area (ha) of healthy coral habitat (>10% coral cover) (summarized at 1,000 ha grid cells), (c) coastal tourism was not modeled for this intervention (see Supplementary Information), and increases in (d) coastal protection, (e) targeted fish biomass, and (f) marine tourism, relative to current conditions.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Mapping the potential change in coastal and marine ecosystem services after implementing watershed interventions at the regional and national scales.

(a) increase coastal and marine tourism (number of people), (b) increase targeted fish biomass (t/ha), and (c) increase coastal protection, relative to current conditions.

Extended Data Table 1 Inputs used in the Restoration Opportunities Optimization Tool (ROOT)
Extended Data Table 2 Countries’ profile

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Tables 1–8 and Figs. 1–6.

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Delevaux, J.M.S., Silver, J.M., Winder, S.G. et al. Social–ecological benefits of land–sea planning at multiple scales in Mesoamerica. Nat Sustain 7, 545–557 (2024).

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