Sustainability Science

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 591–609 | Cite as

A conceptual framework for analyzing deltas as coupled social–ecological systems: an example from the Amazon River Delta

  • Eduardo S. Brondizio
  • Nathan D. Vogt
  • Andressa V. Mansur
  • Edward J. Anthony
  • Sandra Costa
  • Scott Hetrick
Special Feature: Original Article Sustainable Deltas: Livelihoods, Ecosystem Services, and Policy Implications
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Sustainable Deltas: Livelihoods, Ecosystem Services, and Policy Implications


At the nexus of watersheds, land, coastal areas, oceans, and human settlements, river delta regions pose specific challenges to environmental governance and sustainability. Using the Amazon Estuary-Delta region (AD) as our focus, we reflect on the challenges created by the high degree of functional interdependencies shaping social–ecological dynamics of delta regions. The article introduces the initial design of a conceptual framework to analyze delta regions as coupled social–ecological systems (SES). The first part of the framework is used to define a delta SES according to a problem and/or collective action dilemma. Five components can be used to define a delta SES: social–economic systems, governance systems, ecosystems-resource systems, topographic-hydrological systems, and oceanic-climate systems. These components are used in association with six types of telecoupling conditions: socio-demographic, economic, governance, ecological, material, and climatic-hydrological. The second part of the framework presents a strategy for the analysis of collective action problems in delta regions, from sub-delta/local to delta to basin levels. This framework is intended to support both case studies and comparative analysis. The article provides illustrative applications of the framework to the AD. First, we apply the framework to define and characterize the AD as coupled SES. We then utilize the framework to diagnose an example of collective action problem related to the impacts of urban growth, and urban and industrial pollution on small-scale fishing resources. We argue that the functional interdependencies characteristic of delta regions require new approaches to understand, diagnose, and evaluate the current and future impacts of social–ecological changes and potential solutions to the sustainability dilemmas of delta regions.


Deltas Social–ecological systems Amazon Telecoupling Governance Sustainability 



We acknowledge the Belmont Forum funding program, in particular support for the project “Catalyzing action towards sustainability of deltaic systems with an integrated modeling framework for risk assessment (BF-DELTAS).” This includes support from the United States National Science Foundation to E. Brondizio (NSF # 1342898), the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) to S. M. Costa, and the French Research Agency (ANR) to E. Anthony. We would like to also acknowledge the support of the project “Sociocultural adaptations of Caboclos to extreme tidal events in the Amazon estuary” supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada (Co-PIs: Oriana Almeida, Nathan Vogt, and Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez). We are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with and for the support of our BF-Deltas Project colleagues, in particular Efi Foufoula-Georgiou (BF-Deltas lead PI), Zita Sebesvari, Maira S. Brondizio, and to the editors of this special issue on sustainable deltas Sylvia Szabo, Zoe Matthews, and Robert J. Nicholls. We appreciate the constructive comments of the editors and three anonymous reviewers. We acknowledge the support of the Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change (ACT) and the Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL) at Indiana University, where this research was developed.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eduardo S. Brondizio
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Nathan D. Vogt
    • 2
    • 4
    • 5
  • Andressa V. Mansur
    • 2
    • 6
  • Edward J. Anthony
    • 7
  • Sandra Costa
    • 5
  • Scott Hetrick
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyIndiana University BloomingtonBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL)Indiana University BloomingtonBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy AnalysisIndiana University BloomingtonBloomingtonUSA
  4. 4.Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE)São José dos CamposBrazil
  5. 5.Universidade do Vale do Paraíba (UNIVAP)São José dos CamposBrazil
  6. 6.Oficina Erasmus MundusUniversidad de CádizCádizSpain
  7. 7.Université Aix-MarseilleMarseilleFrance

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