Most of the time, environmental debates are framed as being “green versus jobs.” But as a project to save the Belize coast proves, environmental efforts can save both nature and human jobs.

And the proof comes in the form of new research showing that environmentalists and communities can come together to create a win-win situation, not just for people but for native flora and fauna as well.

Belize’s coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows support many marine species, but they’re also crucial to the economy: more than 60 percent of the population depends on that area for tourism, food, and coastal protection. But offshore oil exploration, unchecked development, and overfishing have put these ecosystems at great risk. In 2009, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

It all started with the awareness that something needed to be done, and soon. The Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute and the Natural Capital Project undertook five years of research that culminated with Belize’s first integrated coastal management plan. Their approach was based on spatial planning, involving a wide range of stakeholders, and showing how the management plan would benefit both nature and people.

Ultimately, the preferred zoning plan balanced development and conservation by locating human activities to reduce the scope of areas at high risk, and allowed for the sustainable expansion of several ocean sectors of economic and traditional importance.

The plan was approved by the government of Belize in August of 2016.

“Our work in Belize shows us how to use science about the ways in which nature benefits people to effectively and transparently inform coastal and ocean planning decisions around the world,” said study lead author Gregg Verutes.

“It is a powerful example from the Government of Belize where ecosystems services and stakeholder involvement were used to overcome common barriers to sustainable development planning.”

But change takes time, as the researchers remind us. “The process…took six years, building on efforts from many institutions and individuals in Belize since the 1990s, and benefited from long-term commitment by the core team and flexible, multi-year philanthropic and institutional resources.”

The process undertaken in Belize provides a valuable framework for other coastal nations around the world. Similar efforts could help to prevent the development, overfishing, and habitat degradation that are becoming increasingly serious concerns.