Accurate estimates of cultivated area and crop yield are critical to our understanding of agricultural production and food security, particularly for semi-arid regions like the Sahel of West Africa, where crop production is mainly rain-fed and food security is closely correlated with the inter-annual variations in rainfall. Several global and regional land cover products, based on satellite remotely-sensed data, provide estimates of the agricultural land use intensity, but the initial comparisons indicate considerable differences among them, relating to differences in the satellite data quality, classification approaches, and spatial and temporal resolutions. Here, we quantify the accuracy of available cropland products across Sahelian West Africa using an independent, high-resolution, visually interpreted sample dataset that classifies all points across West Africa using a 2-km sample grid (~500,000 points for the study area). We estimate the “quantity” and “allocation” disagreements for the cropland class of eight land cover products in five Western Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal). The results confirm that coarse spatial resolution (300 m, 500 m, and 1000 m) land cover products have higher disagreements in mapping the fragmented agricultural landscape of the Western Sahel. Earlier products (e.g., GLC2000) are less accurate than recent products (e.g., ESA CCI 2013, MODIS 2013 and GlobCover 2009). We also show that two of the finer spatial resolution maps (GFSAD30, and GlobeLand30) using advanced classification approaches (random forest, decision trees, and pixel-object combined) are currently the best available products for cropland identification. However, none of the eight land cover databases examined is consistent in reaching the targeted 75% accuracy threshold in the five Sahelian countries. The majority of currently available land cover products overestimate cultivated areas by an average of 170% relative to the cropland area in the reference data.
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