Breaking Ground: From Landmines To Grapevines
From the desk of Heidi Kühn, CEO, Roots of Peace
“What I wish to convey is that we, as humans, are capable of doing great good in this world. If your cause is just and your determination strong, you can achieve things beyond your wildest imagination. Let me tell you my story, and you can judge for yourself.”
– Heidi Kühn
On this Mother’s Day 2023, it is important to reflect that over two-thirds of all casualties due to landmines are women and children. It takes only eight pounds to detonate a landmine which is the average weight of a newborn child. As women, we bear the seeds of life, and this is why it has become my life journey to eradicate landmines and renew the face of the earth with viable seeds of life.
As a mother raising four young children in California, I could not imagine a world where there are an estimated 60 million landmines in 60 countries. And I could not imagine a world where children could not run the beaches, hike the mountains, or kick a soccer ball out of bounds with the risk of losing their footsteps to the cruelty of landmines left behind as the legacy of war.
And so, my quest began.
In September 1997, Roots of Peace began with a vision of turning MINES TO VINES – replacing the scourge of landmines with vineyards and orchards worldwide. Turning vision into reality, we implemented our farmer-focused development model that restores farmland, food security, livelihoods, and resilience after devastating conflict. For over 25 years, we have shown millions of people living in war-torn regions around the world a way forward for restoring peace and prosperity through agriculture.
After winning my own battle with cancer, I was deeply inspired to found a non-profit organization, Roots of Peace, to remove an insidious “cancer of the earth” – replacing the remnants of war with bountiful farmland. Since then, we have grown the Roots of Peace across the world with support of governments, international organizations, and the private sector. To date, the work of Roots of Peace has impacted over one million farmers and members of farming families, spanning ten countries: Afghanistan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Guatemala, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Vietnam. We have facilitated the removal of unexploded ordnance and landmines and restored the land to productive agricultural use with the planting of millions of vines and fruit trees.
We began our work in Croatia, partnering with Napa Valley vintners in my home state of California to raise funds to remove landmines left behind by the Croatian War of Independence. Milenko ‘Mike’ Grgich walked with me through one of my first minefields in his beloved homeland of Croatia in May 2000 to witness the devastation of an estimated 1.2 million landmines which prevented the cultivation of grapevines. Upon our return home, we engaged the support of dozens of prominent vintners to turn ‘Mines to Vines.’ Our work was instrumental in reviving the renowned Croatian wine industry, as well as apple, cherry and lavender production.
This experience led to designing a strategy for promoting high value commodities by building agriculture value chains from production and processing to market support and distribution. We worked with Afghan farmers, including 500 women, to increase the yield and quality of table grapes, pomegranates, apples, almonds, apricots, and melons to restore Afghanistan as the “Garden of Central Asia.”
By constructing drying and cold storage facilities and training farmers in packaging and phytosanitary requirements, we helped farmers add value and enter new markets. We worked to re-establish export markets for these products in Dubai, Pakistan, and India. Our efforts facilitated agricultural exports worth over $491 million, as well as a four-fold increase in farm household income.
In the Vietnam provinces which saw the heaviest bombardment of The Vietnam War, Roots of Peace partnered with the U.S. Department of State PM/WRA and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to clear mines from densely populated farmland to make way for more than 1.6 million black pepper trees. Since 2010, more than 3,500 farmers have benefited from our work, exporting over 50 metric tons of high-grade black pepper to new markets in the United States and expanding into vanilla and cashew production to benefit farmers working to plant the roots of peace on former war-torn lands.
On January 6, 2020, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President Emeritus, The World Food Prize, joined me on the former battlefields of Quang Tri, Vietnam – former DMZ. Together, we joined hands to detonate a single landmine as an ‘act of peace’ with a team of all women deminers from MAG. Today, we remain dedicated towards raising awareness and funds to remove all landmines, cluster munition and explosive remnants of war in all South East Asia – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. We seek to restore these seeds of terror with seeds of hope, as we cultivate peace through agriculture – Pax Agricultura.
With conflicts proliferating in so many parts of the world, war is a growing threat to farmlands and food security. An increasing number of nations are finding it necessary to confront the daunting challenge of restoring food systems, livelihoods, and communities after conflict. Our Roots of Peace ‘Mines to Vines’ initiative shows the world the vital role agriculture must have in the resilient recovery from conflict and restoration of peace.
Heidi Kühn is the Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, launching the organization in 1997 with a vision of turning Mines to Vines. Since then, Roots of Peace has facilitated the removal of over one hundred thousand landmines and unexploded ordnances and provided food security to local communities in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Guatemala, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Vietnam. In 2021, Heidi’s visionary leadership was acknowledged with her inclusion in the inaugural Forbes 50 Over 50 “Women Who Are Leading the Way in Impact” List. In 2002, Kuhn received the University of California at Berkeley Alumni of the Year Award for Excellence in Achievement. In 2005 she was awarded the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations Peace & Security Award. In 2006 she received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2007, she was given the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service – the foremost award for American changemakers.
Heidi also won the 2019 Mahatma Gandhi Seva Medal. In November 2022, Heidi was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the American University of Afghanistan at a dinner hosted by former First Ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Heidi is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economics, and a former CNN reporter and producer. She lives in San Rafael, California, with her husband, Gary, with whom she has four children – Brooks, Tucker, Kyleigh, and Christian. She also has six grandchildren.
Images courtesy Heidi Kühn