Local collaborators
Dr. Peter Chatanga
Dr. Sebolelo Molete
Dr. Liteboho Maduna
Molikuoa Masala

Lesotho, known as the Mountain Kingdom, is truly surreal.

It is a small high-altitude country with a population of just over 2 million. The country, landlocked by South Africa on all sides, is made up of continuous mountains and deep valleys, with virtually no tree cover.

The high peaks, reaching over 3,300 meters, are covered with snow in the winter. To collect fungi in this rugged landscape, SPUN had to cross mountain passes on horseback.

Together with researchers from National University of Lesotho, SPUN is sampling mycorrhizal communities of high-altitude wetlands. These are ecosystems highly valued for carbon storage, waterflow regulation, erosion control, and undescribed fungal biodiversity.

Molikuoa Masala

But if these same wetlands become degraded, they become a global source of carbon. Recent figures from Lesotho suggest that eroded soils were found in over 30% of surveyed wetlands.

The carbon-rich wetlands of Lesotho are also responsible for providing clean water to southern Africa via the 1300-kilometer long Senqu River, one of Africa's longest water ways. But these important high-altitude ecosystems are facing rapid warming and increased droughts.

As snowfalls diminish and run-off increases, soil erosion is predicted to escalate.  

Soil (known locally as mobu) is among the most valuable resources in Lesotho. Over 70% of Basotho people rely on agriculture for subsistence and income, but only 10% of the Mountain Kingdom’s terrain is suitable for cultivation.

It is estimated that the country loses close to 40 million metric tons of soil to erosion every year.

This soil loss has the potential to induce a chain reaction: because there are no tree roots to hold the soil in place, erosion drives the formation of dongas – extreme eroded gullies that pockmark the land, reaching depths of over 10 meters. Healthy mycorrhizal communities are key to controlling the expansion of dongas, as they form scaffolds that keep soil in place.

Soil stewardship is extremely important to farmers in Lesotho, many of whom have adopted a method called likoti, in which crops are planted in narrow pits and topsoil remains untilled.

Analysis by the FAO has shown that farms practicing likoti have higher productivity and are more environmentally sustainable.

SPUN is interested in understanding if these farming techniques help foster mycorrhizal fungi that make agriculture more resilient in a changing climate. Because synthetic fertilizer and chemicals are rarely used, the soils of Lesotho may harbor species unknown to science, with unique properties that have evolved in the absence of chemical inputs.