A team from the University of Maryland’s GLAD laboratory has analyzed satellite images of the Democratic Republic of Congo to identify different elements of the “rural complex” — where many of the DRC’s subsistence farmers live.Their new maps and visualizations allow scientists and land-use planners to pinpoint areas where the cycle of shifting cultivation is contained, and where it is causing new deforestation.The team and many experts believe that enhanced understanding of the rural complex could help establish baselines that further inform multi-pronged approaches to forest conservation and development, such as REDD+. When a farmer cuts down a tree in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s often a reason for it. She’s most likely clearing the land to plant crops — the rice and corn and cassava that will see her family through another year. And chances are good that it’s an area she, or her husband or father or mother, has cleared before. She’ll farm this plot for a few years, and then when the soil tires and the nutrients have been used up, she’ll move on to a new plot. For all its bizarre and wondrous botanical diversity, the soil in the Congo Basin is pretty poor on the whole. So once the earth in a particular plot is spent, the farmer will leave it alone for a period of time, ranging from a few years up to about two decades in a place like the DRC. Then, she’ll move on to clear another patch of land, and the pattern repeats itself. The problem for scientists looking at satellite images is that it’s difficult to figure out whether they’re seeing the clearing of land that’s been farmed for decades or centuries, or blasts of new deforestation in relatively untouched rainforest. Up until now, all of that tree cover loss has been lumped together for the most part, says geospatial scientist Giuseppe Molinario.