Trees in Grids: A Mystery

About a year and a half ago, I was working on a project that used West African data. We wanted to geocode some of the locations mentioned in our dataset, and so my coworker and I took to Google Maps to search for the cities and villages mentioned.
One evening, a couple of hours past when I really wanted to be at the computer lab, I was looking at satellite imagery of Cote d’Ivoire and saw this:

That caught my eye. There was something very uniform about these trees. I zoomed in.

This definitely isn’t an act of nature.

“So, what? It’s some kind of grove.” you say to yourself, getting ready to click back over to Facebook and check your notifications for the 537th time today. She still hasn’t liked your witty status. She isn’t going to like your witty status.

But hold on a sec, before you go down that rabbit hole of existential despair. This isn’t just one grove. Almost the whole coastline of Cote d’Ivoire is covered in these groves, and they keep going on into Ghana. I found this one in Benin.1


Originally, when I saw this, I thought I was seeing some kind of giant government program. However, that doesn’t seem likely given:

  1. It seems unlikely that Cote d’Ivoire has high enough state capacity to pull off a program of massive tree-planting, just knowing that it recently had a civil war. This wouldn’t necessarily disqualify it, since trees do take a lot of time to grow, but…
  2.  If we look at the border of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, there doesn’t seem to be a significant change in the pattern of groves. There’s no obvious sudden reversion to a natural tree pattern.

So, we’re probably looking at groves that are privately owned. They seem pretty damn large to me, though. And most don’t seem to have road access. (By “road” here, I’m including anything that just looks like some kind of worn trail.)

My guess, just from looking at pictures of trees of crops that are common in Cote d’Ivoire, is that these are cassava groves.

I literally just spent the last three hours of my life looking at Google Maps and rubber trees on the Internet, when I knew cassava was a big part of the agriculture in West Africa. Why?

Cassava makes a starchy tuber that can be turned into tapioca flour, and it’s a key component of the diet in Cote d’Ivoire.

artichoke heart
Unless we’re looking at the heart of an artichoke after removing the choke. There is a passing resemblance.

1. I’m not 100% certain that these are the same types of trees. The resolution makes it a little difficult to see the shape of the trees in Cote d’Ivoire. Side note to this footnote: if you look at any city in the United States, you can get down to the point where you can see the stripes that a lawnmower leaves behind on a yard. I wonder how Google Maps decides where to put its high resolution. Are they allowed to use it in China? Cape Town, in South Africa, has resolution equivalent to the US. Belarus does not. Back