The land use and land cover maps characterize the landscapes at a resolution of 500 m. They are based on visual interpretation of Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) and high-resolution images, from 2000 and 2013. No comparable sources of imagery were available to complete a map for the 1975 period.
Centuries of land alteration to expand agricultural production has created a highly engineered, complex mosaic of land use in Cabo Verde. A few early records describe the original vegetation of the islands. Grasses and shrubs likely constituted the vegetative communities of the arid lowlands. The more humid highlands probably consisted of woody shrubs interspersed with herbaceous species, and a handful of tree species colonized the most favorable waterways. Closed-canopy forests likely never existed (Benton, 2013).
After the Portuguese colonization, the land underwent vast land use changes. Livestock (primarily goats), intensive agricultural practices, and other introduced species greatly altered the native vegetation and decimated the native tree populations. The reduction of natural vegetation in many areas also contributed to soil erosion. By the early 20th century many parts of the islands were heavily degraded.
Afforestation and soil and water conservation efforts to restore degraded land began in earnest in the mid-20th century by the Portuguese (Benton, 2013). From 1928 to 1975, Cabo Verde gained about 30 sq km of afforested areas, mostly in Santo Antão, Fogo, and São Nicolau (WOCAT, 2015; Lopes and Santos, 2010). Both the mountainous parts of the islands and the arid and semiarid zones benefited from the afforestation programs. After Cabo Verde’s independence in 1975, critical forest regulations were established and the expansion of forests continued. These afforestation efforts were already highly visible on the landscape in 2000. The earliest plantations (e.g., Pinus spp., Cupressus spp., and Eucalyptus spp.) on the highlands of Santo Antão and São Vicente have become dense forests and woodlands on the highest slopes, where cultivation is not possible. These forests are still expanding. Dense forest area increased by 21 percent (6 sq km), and woodland by 24 percent (34 sq km), between 2000 and 2013. The more recent afforestation projects of the last two decades have focused mainly on the drier lands of the Sotavento islands (i.e. Santiago, Maio, and Brava). The main species being planted were Prosopis juliflora, Acacia spp. and Ziziphus mauritiana, well adapted to the arid climate. A total of 248 sq km of plantations were mapped in 2000, decreasing slightly to 243 sq km in 2013. As the young trees matured and their canopies coalesced, the plantations take on a woodland appearance. The succession of some plantations into woodlands accounts for the decrease in plantation area.
The arid zones of the lower elevations — all the flat islands such as Sal, Boa Vista, and Maio, and the pediments of the mountainous islands — account for over half the Cabo Verde’s land area. These areas, predominantly bare, steppe, or shrubland, remained largely stable from 2000 to 2013 respectively. Suitability for agriculture is very low but better suited to pastoral or silvo-pastoral use. However, steppe and shrubland areas decreased 2 and 5 percent between 2000 and 2013, mostly because of restoration projects that converted certain areas to plantation or woodland.
In 2000, agriculture covered 423 sq km over the whole archipelago, about 10 percent of the country area. Cropland only increased by 8 sq km from 2000 to 2013. Cultivated areas, however, are not evenly distributed among the islands. Santo Antão and Santiago are the most cultivated islands, with more than 70 percent of the total farmed land of Cabo Verde. Irrigated agriculture was mostly found on Santiago Island in the ribeiras — valleys where ephemeral streams have created steep hillsides, at times with nearly vertical walls. In spite of climatic hazards and rugged terrain, agriculture is the main activity in the archipelago, occupying more than half of the workforce.