Subsistence crops & shifting cultivation

Hey community,

I kind of asked the same question quite a while ago, but now I put some more thought into it and I had to get back to you with the topic.

I’m primarily busy with mapping parts of the Kwilu and Kwango region of the DR Congo, and for some reason I started to map a lot of landscape, too. This landcape is extremely complex if you take a detailed look: In the grasslands, you find thousands of small crops where people work on with no machinery (hence their size).

When I started mapping, I was told to be as detailed as possible - so I used to tag every single crop (and not “areas” of crops, like I did before that). But now I realized that the size of crops is not the only complex thing about them: It is, in fact, shifting cultivation.

What does that mean?

As the name suggests, the crops only rest for one (or 2?) years, after that they are abandoned to let the grounds recover. That means, every time we receive new sattelite imagery (which just happened for the Kwilu/Kwango area), the mapped crops would not resemble the imagery. Radically thought, my edits are useless.

The question is: How do we deal with shifting cultivation? Is it “mappable”? How? Do we just not map it?

…just to add one more thing: The whole shifting cultivation issue is an important part of the Landgrabbing debate. “Land-deals” are also mostly based on sattelite imagery (due to the un-ability and un-willingness of gov. officials to visit the concerned areas) and they do the same “mistake” like I did: Seeing that areas are - apparently - not used, they can be sold (or tagged as natural=grassland).

Why do I bring this up? Because I think that it is very important to somehow point out that those areas ARE used - and are NOT unoccupied!

Thank you very much in advance for any suggestions, help or maybe also more questions!

Kind regards from Brussels,


What’s the historic nature of the land tenure? E.g.

  • Common
  • Common to members of a village
  • Landlorded with tenant farmers
  • Family owned

Is this like the European, medieval crop rotation system, where ownership remains constant, but there are Nitrogen fixing crops, Nitrogen consuming crops and fallow periods?

Good question. First of all:

“[…] the Congolese State now exercises ‘sovereignty’ over lands and resources rather than being ‘proprietor’. The Constitution also recognises individual and collective property rights, obtained either through formal law or customary law.” Long, Cath: Land Rights in the DRC.

In reality, the areas I am working on are “managed” by the local communities. I assume that the decisions where to farm are either taken by the chief of the village or at an even lower level, e.g. the families you mentioned.

I am not entirely sure how thought-out the whole system is and how exactly it works. But if you look at various imagery, you can see that cultivation is shifting - but I don’t know whether this follows a system of a specific number of years.

I have also not been there personally (yet - probably soon though) so I cannot base my assumptions on any personal experience.

I don’t understand what you mean with individual crops. 1 plant ?
As for shifting cultivation, you either remap it every year, or you do not mention the crop and just map landuse=farmland.

p.s. I’ve asked a Jorieke, a fellow Belgian mapper that has been to the DRC last year to work with the local community, to join the conversation.


thank you for your response. I decided to create a small picture showing what I want to describe:

As you can see, those are edits I made based on different (older) sattelite imagery. Grassland has been tagged as natural=grassland, the crops as landuse=farmland. Now, sattelite imagery has been updated, and you can see that my edits are not accurate anymore. In areas that are tagged as natural=grassland, you’ll find new crops, while the old ones I tagged are abandoned by now and overgrown with grassland - so their tags would also need a revision.

Ok, I understand now.

Yes, things change, so that means that we have to constantly update the map. If you start looking around in Belgium, you will notice similar changes between farmland and meadows.

Growing up as a farm boy we would often rotate crops. For a year it might be XXX and another year it would be abc and then it would go back to grass for a year or several years.
No matter the crop grown it was still farmland.
Would this be similar?

I think what you talk about are fallows. This is a integral part of crop circulation systems, a land use that gives the ground (and its eco system) time to regenerate. This is to be distinguished from dedicated meadows that is harvested for grass or hay or used as pasture, and also from natural=grassland, which is uncultivated land.

I do not think that remapping every year makes any sense. You would document a step in a cycle which is short sighted.

Why not just tag it as farmland, and leave out the crop? You would not know from pictures anyway.
IF you know, I’d propose to use crop_rotation=yes, crop=;;fallow

This would document the real land use more precise that micro mapping, and would also reflect both the pattern of land use and fact that seemingly unused land is part of a cultivation form and thus actively in use.

I think shifting cultivation is an annual activity, maybe a year has many seasons, and it has many changes in a short time, so it not map.