Heidi Kuhn–Founder of Roots of Peace
Transcript, Heidi Kuhn–Founder of Roots of Peace
Welcome to today’s show. Can you share a little about your background with us?
Introduction of Heidi Kuhn, see bio below
When one looks back on the tapestry of our life, you know, it is those seeds that we have in common rather than those which separate us. And for me, I’m a fifth generation, Marin County residents, my great great grandfather was a pioneer here.
And that pioneer spirit runs through my blood, it was a great appreciation for the land, and its people and that California spirit was passed on to me through generations. And, you know, I was actually born of course in Marin County, and was privileged when I was 17 years old to be selected as an exchange student by the Rotary Club of San Rafael to go to Japan.
And as 17 year old young girl, I was, it was just remarkable to go there in 1975. And, you know, to know that just 30 years before, my father and his friends had served in World War Two and to live with families and see the potential of forgiveness, and moving forward was just so deeply instilled in my heart. And so when I came back home, I told my parents, I really wanted to get an education in peace.
And I selected the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated in political economics of industrial societies during the 1970s. And again, that was a pivotal time following the Vietnam War, when the era of peace and love, you know, would really defined our generation. And I had, I met my husband, Gary, when I was 19, there on campus, and we studied at the economics of peace, and it is such a privilege.
You know, 44 years later, with my husband, Gary to have founded roots of peace, your life has its challenges. And when we had our one, three and five year old child, my husband was transferred to Juneau, Alaska as the manager of IBM. I’ve been moved, I didn’t expect to do you know, in January, but we made the most of it. And there were many things happening in Alaska at that time.
That was the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the melting of the ice curtain between us Soviet relations. So I started my own company, which was called news link. International, wanting to melt the ice curtain and to facilitate communications. Just as I was starting the company, the Exxon Valdez hit Bly wreath and I became the CNN reporter, from Alaska. But another big story was going on.
And in December of 89, I arranged to for an interview took about six months to get that interview in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, and my husband flew with me and the hour, we arrived for the interview with Gennadi Gerasimov.
We were told that Andre Sakharov had just died, and I had the worldwide exclusive and that really opened up, you know, my opportunity to, you know, through an act of fate, to be that voice of communication. And to think of Moscow again, in 1989.
There, there were no phone books, you know, there was no map of the city and, and I was fortunate enough to find my way on a snowy afternoon to CBS News, and it was the lead story on down rather, so again, the trust, you know, was developed with them, the Soviet Union, and I, you know, life sometimes has its great challenges, and I was diagnosed with malignant cancer and told that I wasn’t going to live.
I had a, again, a one, three and five year old, and, you know, it was a defining moment. And, you know, as time went on, you know, I quit my job and you know about well, and, and, and I was years later, went to my doctor, the same doctor. And get tears in his eyes and, and I thought, let’s just say it quickly get it over and he said you have a miracle you’re pregnant.
So I had this beautiful child and named him Christian because he was really a gift. And I think anyone who goes under the knife knows that you make a very sacred prayer to your God, whatever whoever your path to the divine may be. But mine was dear God grant me the gift of life. And I will do something special with it.
While I was holding this beautiful little child in my arms and was asked by the Commonwealth club of San Francisco to host an event, on landmines, and just a few weeks before Princess Diana had had tragically died, and it was just a convergence in my heart in my mind, because cancer is a landmine, none of us really ever know when we are going to step on it, and can’t end landlines or cancer to the earth.
And so I invited you know, a group of international dignitaries to my home, the Consul General of Norway, the Consul General of Germany, many close friends and neighbors and about 100 people in my home. And on September 21 1997, I lifted my glass in what was to become a prophetic toast made the world go from mines, to vines.
And it was at that moment that that promise that was made was really a vision of replacing the scourge of landmines with bountiful vineyards and orchards worldwide, and to learn in 1997 that we live in a world where there are an estimated 60 million landmines silently poised in 60 countries, and that children around the world cannot kick a soccer ball out of bounds without the fear of losing life or limb to a landmine.
Or chasing a butterfly across a field and picking flowers for their families, only to step on a mine. This indeed happened in Bosnia Herzegovina, what happens when a little child steps on a landmine at age nine, your two best friends come running towards you to help you and boom, boom, boom. All three of those children died that day. And it took a lot of time.
Amidst the screams and crying for their parents as the village held the parents back and the D miners work tirelessly to get there. The children died and roots of peace with our children. My children, my four children, saw the empathy and pain that children must suffer around the world. My daughter started a penny campaign.
She raised ultimately 50 million American pennies to build schools for girls in Afghanistan. And with those pennies, she cleared that field in Bosnia Herzegovina, and today beautiful flowers grow on a former minefield. So it is really been a family quest with roots of peace again to make a toast May the world go from mines to vines from the living room of your home.
It is now rippled around the world, and roots a pieces planting rice in Cambodia, grapes in Afghanistan, orchards, in Croatia, wheat in Iraq, and in Vietnam, which was the war of my generation. Today, there’s millions of cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance that remain in the ground and palm tree province.
This was the side of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War, places like case on Dong ha cam lo Hamburger Hill 80% of that land today is riddled with these explosive remnants of war routes. A piece has been there for over a decade, with the leadership of my second son, who was country director.
When he graduated from University of San Francisco, he came to us and my husband and I presented his resume and said Mom and Dad, I’d like to come work for you. And it was a horrifying moment for me because I thought this is such dangerous work. You can’t do this. And it was moment of laughter they looked at us and said, Well, you can’t do this either.
And so we gave in and at 25 years old, a blue eyed blonde, you know, in my day, it was a draft card. And here he was a drafting piece. Today, over 10,000 Vietnamese farmers have been trained to grow black pepper, the best black pepper in the world, on former battlefields. And that really is a living example of turning mines into pepper vines, and giving the world a taste of peace.
You know, we’ve been given this world to shepherd whatever our faith whether we’re Christians, Jews, Muslims are people just with good hearts, like in Vietnam, a communist country, but regardless of the color of our hand, the faith in our heart or the politics in our mind. We have to begin with the de mining, the removal of the hatred and for me, hatred at Ground Zero is a landmine.
But the landmines in our hearts and on our minds must be filled with something. And that is seeds of love and seeds of hope. And in the ground, a seed will grow today as it has for 1000s of years.
Again, regardless of the color of our hand, and with sunlight, water and a human hand, I think we have the ability as humanity to grow and nurture the roots of peace on earth, and the ability to turn remove these insidious landmines from the one earth we share. You know what, Alan, we’re coming out of this pandemic, fortunately, with vaccines, but there is no cure for landmines except removal.
And I hope that we come from this, this global pandemic that has been so horrific, has kept us all shelter in place in our own homes, but with a sense of empathy and understanding for others who may not go out of their homes for fear of landmines.
In January 2000, when the first month of the new millennium, again, as a cancer survivor and a mother of four children, I wanted to begin this new millennium, with a with a legacy for my children, because you don’t know when you have cancer, really how much longer you have. And I feel so fortunate to, to be here today. And to really be a voice for peace in a very grounded and pragmatic way.
It’s not the peace of the 70s at Berkeley, but it’s the most grounded peace to eradicate these landmines, so that the earth is no longer held hostage by these seeds of terror, and to create these fertile grounds for the economics of peace to flourish.
And it really has become Alan, my life mission. And I’m so grateful to my entire family again in January 2000, to begin the first month of the new millennium in a minefield in Croatia.
And that’s where I witnessed children tethered to poles and I as an American and initially thought, what kind of mother would do that and went inside and respectfully the family said to me, Mrs. Kuhn, our entire backyard is a minefield from the Balkan War in Croatia when I went there in January 2000.
There are an estimated 1.2 million landmines and unexploded ordnance roots a piece went to work after the mines to vines toast with Napa Valley vineyards and we witnessed the signing of the Ottawa treaty to ban landmines and without a penny to my name these visitors stood by me. In May of 2000, just five months after my initial visit, it was my daughter’s 13th birthday.
And as a rite of passage, I just didn’t want her growing up in a beautiful place called Marin County and know that there are children around the world that can’t hike the mountains that Mount Tamalpais or run the beaches of Stinson without the fear of a landmine.
And it was a little much to take a 13 year old daughter to a minefield, but it opened up her eyes towards the sense of privilege that we have, and I think to whom much has been given, much as expected, and it was a life lesson for her and I’m just so proud of the woman she has become today.
As I mentioned, she was inspired with ABC seven news anchors Cheryl Jennings to start a penny campaign piece one penny at a time was her battle cry, and raising 50 million American pennies. On her 18th birthday.
I took her to Donna Stan, and there she was able to see once again, children who did not have the sense of privilege that we do in the United States of America true freedom to roam the earth without the fear of a landmine. Well, she saw a school where children were studying under a tent and a gigantic grapevine It was really again prophetic. And the field was mined. It was a burning hot August afternoon.
And she took the pennies that she had raised and had the land mines removed by the halo trust. And that’s the same group that had of course led the late Princess Diana through Angola prior the year prior to her tragic death.
But the school was built and over 600 children north of Kabul, were able to be educated. So it really is a beautiful example to young people today that there’s so much we can do in this world, and so much we can do as humanity to plant the roots of peace on earth.
How big of a problem are landmines today and are there certain areas of the world that you focused in on?
Well, yes, tragically today, landmines still are prevalent throughout the earth. And it took Princess Diana to raise the visibility of them. And its years went on, Sir Paul McCartney and his wife heather mills, McCartney.
Additionally raised awareness but you know, after their divorce dissipated from the forefront of the international agenda, and so it has really been a journey to carry this torch this light for the importance of the eradication of landmines, because we really don’t hear about it anymore. But the silent suffering still goes on.
And today, in 2021, an estimated 60 million landmines are silently poised in 60 countries. Now, Alan, that’s what roughly 1/3 of the countries in our world today. And and after the September 11, attacks on the United States, you know, we’re coming upon the 20th anniversary of 911. Our family like others were just devastated.
Two days before I had just returned from taking my oldest son, as a rite of passage on his 18th birthday to Croatia, we were privileged to travel with Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with the international campaign to ban landmines and was a mother, her son and a Nobel laureate. And we traveled throughout Croatia just to see the devastation.
But at that point 2001, we were starting to see the effects of routes of peace, and the lands that had been cleared since our initial journey there. And we flew back through New York City, and I remember showing him the two towers on September 9, and just you know, just to always keep that higher vision for peace.
And two days later, my country looked as horrible as as Vukovar, Croatia, where, you know, devastation occurred between Serbs and Croats. And so we began our journey in a different direction. The United States President George W. Bush had promised the innocent people of Afghanistan that we would stand by them, even though we had to retaliate. We’ve been lotton and, you know, the Taliban at that time.
So we went to our local restaurant here in again, San Rafael, California, and it was called the Bamiyan Afghan restaurant. And our good friends will lead and Nadia were born and raised there. But they had cut the heritage out they Bamiyan Afghan restaurant was cut out, because and their three children were hiding under their desks and we said, Nadia, will lead What, what, what’s wrong?
And they said, well, we’re hiding under our desks, because we’re afraid of retaliation for the 911 attacks. And our family set out to fill that restaurant with our mayor and chief of police and chief of Fire Department, the heroes in our local community that protect us each and every day. And I started a fundraiser there 150 people they were nervous that we couldn’t fill the restaurant. And indeed We did.
And with the funds I raised, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get it to Afghanistan. But once again, I was very determined. And I can say that today. We have roots of peace have planted over 5 million fruit trees in all 34 provinces impacting over 1 million farmers and families.
We began our trek into Afghanistan, I went to University of California Davis, and learned that there were 70 varietals of grapes that originated in Afghanistan. That that the saplings of the grape vines, were brought to UC Davis by a professor Harold Olmo in the 1940s. He was considered an Indiana Jones you’ve traveled freely around the country and took these 70 varietals of grapes and created a living library at UC Davis.
Well, due to war with the Soviets in 1979, and Civil War and the Taliban, the vineyards in Afghanistan were burned. And then further mind so these beautiful varietals of grapes were lost. So I partnered with UC Davis and the funded by the USA ID with our first program of turning minds to vines.
And a wonderful woman named Diane Miller, I met offered to volunteer at our house, and my world headquarters was in my basement I came Alan from very humble roots with roots of peace.
And this dear woman, who was a vintner, her own Silverado vineyards would volunteer every week, she’d show up at my home, shuffling papers helping me What then call the fax machine, you’d hear that familiar beep beep the pin, you know, here would come something from the United Nations.
It was just remarkable. And one day, she took me to lunch, and she pulled out her checkbook and she said, somebody’s got to do this. And then she presented me with a six figure check. Now, when you’re working in the basement of your home with four, you know, wild and wonderful children, surrounding you to see a six figure check just was astonishing.
It was a very pivotal moment for me and she said, Go turn your minds to mines in Afghanistan, you remind me of Dad, I looked at the cheque and I said Mrs. Miller, I said, Who was your father? And she said, Well, Disney, I’m Diane Disney Miller. My father was Walt Disney. So it was that spirit of the American dream, Alan that that really, unbeknownst to me that her father was Walt Disney.
And those Disney dollars to create a magic kingdom for children to not welcome landmines. So we began to immediately partner with the United Nations mine action service under the leadership of Martin Barbour.
And we partnered with the halo trust, and we removed over 100,000 landmines, you exos north of cobble in what was called the shrimali Plains, and this area is much like the Napa Sonoma Valley, beautiful grape vines, but the Spirit was destroyed, again by the laying of landmines and the burning of those fields by the Taliban.
Well, once we went back in there, we introduce the trellis grapevines, when you lift the grapes off the ground, and you prune the vine, you double the yield. So many so many references throughout so many biblical and, you know, universal, the Holy Quran, I mean, so many references to the grapevine. And so we asked the Afghan elders to trust us, we were going away for the winter.
And, you know, to keep these trellis demonstration plots together, when we returned in the spring, they had cut them all down, was my first lesson as an American. We said why we, you know, if we trust us, they will grow and they said Mrs. Kuhn, it was the coldest winter on record, if we didn’t cut the wood down, we couldn’t keep our family warm or feed our children.
So we learned and we introduce the cement trellis mines. And today that is a legacy throughout all of Afghanistan, lifting these beautiful fresh grapes and harvesting them with funding from USA ID God, European Union, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. I have probably for the past two decades managed over $200 million in grants for Afghanistan.
And when we look back and think of the 2 billion that was spent, and the legacy is many people say that this is the forever war and nothing happened. Yeah, I beg to argue. Because there is a flip side to the coin. Afghanistan is a country 80% dependent upon agriculture.
And if we’re going to lift this great country up from the rubble, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs for these young people, and men and women, Afghanistan today the demographics are such that 65% of the country is under the age of 25 years old. And so to literally turn the swords into plowshares spears into pruning hooks. So that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
This is the time and the moment to be on an aggressive moment to aim that metal towards the ground. Again, for the past two decades roots of peace has planted over 5 million fruit trees in all 34 provinces. And this spring alone as a spring search for roots of peace I have 350 employees, and they’re quite afraid right now with the drawdown of the US military troops.
But we need to stand in solidarity with the Afghan people and families like never before roots of peace with funding from both the US Department of State IML International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and USA ID has entrusted route to peace with $45 million.
And we are working in the most remote provinces. Because once the ink dries on the peace treaty, you have to implement peace and nature working with us roots of peace has planted over 700,000 fruit trees. And we’re preparing next month in June for a harvest of hope. and the harvest season Afghanistan. If you look at it on the map, it’s actually shaped like a leaf.
And I think it’s time to turn over a new leaf in Afghanistan, and really focus on the success of peace through agriculture. And we’re preparing for the harvest and in the south and Kandahar and Helmand the beautiful pomegranates and melons. It’s Apples Apricots, almonds and north of Kabul. Of course, the fresh grapes and raisins, those grape vines, people ask me why you know how I’m growing wine in a Muslim country?
Well, that would of course, deep respect to the Muslim culture. The Grapes will never be fermented, and only the fresh grapes and raisins are exported to India and Pakistan. And we’re doubling and tripling the income to poppies. So in many ways we are winning this war. It’s just a narrative that is not told, sadly, we wait for the latest suicide bomber.
This past weekend, of course, the 50 girls who were targeted, make the headlines. And we believe that peace through agriculture should be the headlines now as we brace ourselves for a harvest of hope with our African farmers and families.
You know, I want to walk the listeners through that, you know, a video where we can see the process of removing a vine could you could you go through is as a field is cleared how they how they do that? Mm hmm. Well, it’s a very dangerous job, and very painstaking. And when I’ve seen people do the mining, for instance, in Croatia, my first minefield in in January 2000.
It was much like praying people are on the ground, orderly, silent, and you have these providers slowly going back and forth. Everything’s done by hand. It’s done by hand, primarily. Because if you look outside the terrain where we both live in San Francisco Bay Area, when you have rugged hills, you can’t necessarily put a remote controlled flailed tractor in as you would in, in, in the wheat fields of Nebraska.
But the rugged terrain requires the labor intensive method of In fact, I have an anti personnel line mind here this is but imagine the seeds of hatred in the ground and you know, it takes only eight pounds to detonate, which is the average weight of a newborn child. But once they find the, the landmine, you hear a beep.
You know, if See, four is put on the, you know, the area and we stand back, you know, over 100 yards, and you hear this horrible boom. It’s a bittersweet because it’s so wonderful, you got one out, but to imagine how many 1000s more remain buried in the ground, and they’re really hidden killers that, you know, long after the guns of war have been silenced.
They remain in the ground. So it’s a very labor intensive, very serious job. I have had the privilege of D mining with professional deminers from both the halo trust and mag, the mines advisory group.
In fact, in January 2020, in Vietnam, I had the privilege of going to Vietnam to these former battlefields from the Vietnam War, with Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, who’s president emeritus of the World Food Prize, and together we designated one landmine and again that bittersweet moment of hearing that mind being detonated and just knowing how much more work lies ahead.
So, it takes a great deal of courage in the area of country, Vietnam, it was an all woman demining team, and we asked these women why do you do this? And, you know, they looked at us again with the context of a different culture and say we are mothers, we do not want our children to step on these mines.
And the only jobs we can get in these poor rural villages, you know, is prostitution, we would rather put our lives on the front line to have dignified jobs and keep the land safe for our children. So every time Ellen, I walk into a minefield, I learned something new.
And it humbles me and gives me the context to come back home to a beautiful place called Marin County where I’m, you know, fortunate to be, you know, fifth generation descendant of a pioneer family but it’s just that giddy up spirit that we got to try harder and the American way by partisan in this world, we made a promise to the Afghan people that we would stand in solidarity with them. And this is not a time to run.
This is a time in a country that’s 80%, dependent upon agriculture, to stand shoulder to shoulder to go the distance and convert those swords into plowshares, guns into shovels and give jobs to the deserving men and women in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. So breaking ground from landmines divines we get that on Amazon, I guess. amazon.com.
And thank you so much, Alan, because it’s a it’s a story written from the heart of the mother. It’s not a white paper.
It’s one of tenacity and courage and, and, and, and a family that has really supported me, you know, as a mother, and now a grandmother of three, almost four children, grandchildren, you know, if we take my footsteps seriously, and it’s the legacy that we leave behind, I have a vision not to leave my grandchildren in a mind world.
Prince Harry and 2017 invited our family to Kensington Palace, where he made a pledge for a mind free world by 2025. His mother was a visionary in raising global landmine awareness. And in that spirit of mother to son and mother to child, I stand in solidarity with that vision and will do everything that I can with my footsteps, to create a landmine free world by 2025.
You know, Alan, we think of so many things that are impossible in our world, and our children have lived now through COVID-19. And you know, what, seemingly is a forever war in Afghanistan, but we have the ability to do better. And, as you said earlier, we have the ability to sow the seeds of love, rather than the seeds of hatred, and literally plant the roots of peace on earth.
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About Heidi Kuhn:
Heidi Kuhn is Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, a humanitarian-nonprofit organization founded in September 1997 with a vision to transform MINES TO VINES–replacing the scourge of landmines with sustainable agricultural farmland.
Her pioneering work empowers families living in war-torn regions with hope leading to the economics of peace through export and trade The California spirit is deeply rooted in Heidi, who was raised with the values of respecting the earth and its people, ideals established by her family who were early pioneers in the 1800’s.
A fifth-generation California, she attended the University of California Berkeley majoring in Political Economics, where those core beliefs were strengthened during the peace movement of the 1970’s, setting forth a lifelong commitment to pioneering the footsteps of peace.
During the early 1990’s, Heidi owned her own television news organization, NewsLink International, reporting for CNN and other news organizations in Alaska on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the melting of the “ice curtain” between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Raising her children in Juneau, Alaska, she earned a reputation for bridging borders for peace—reporting for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Nippon Television and other major media organizations. After overcoming a cancer diagnosis, Heidi further embraced the core values she was raised with when she saw an opportunity to eradicate another form of cancer – that of landmines, which she viewed as a cancer to the Earth.
From the basement of her home, she garnered the support of famed Napa Valley vintners including Robert Mondavi, Mike Grgich and Diane Disney Miller to support her vision of turning “Mines to Vines” – replacing the remnants of war with bountiful vineyards and orchards of peace around the world.
Over the past 23 years, Heidi has grown Roots of Peace across the world with the support of the United States Government, the United Nations, World Bank, international governments, Rotary Clubs and the private sector.
She has been recognized by numerous world leaders including UN Secrteary-General Kofi Annan, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, His Holiness Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, the Grand Mufti of the Dome of Jerusalem and many heads of state and government. Her supporters include the United States Government, the United Nations, World Bank and other international governments and organizations.
She has been recognized by numerous world leaders including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and many heads of state and government. To date, Roots of Peace has impacted over 1 million farmers and families, spanning eight countries – Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Vietnam.
Heidi’s work has led the successful USAID program to increase the agricultural exports in Afghanistan from $250 million in 2014 to over $1.4 billion in 2020.
Roots of Peace has facilitated the removal of over 100,000 landmines and unexploded bombs, restoring the land for agricultural bounty. Heidi and Roots of Peace have been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2006 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award/National Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Rotary International “Service Above Self” Award.
In 2018, she received the inaugural Earth Ethics Award from Marcus Nobel, nephew of Alfred Nobel presented to her at the United Nations in New York.
And, in 2019, Heidi received the Gandhi Global Family Award in New Delhi, the first American to receive this prestigious award on the occasion of the 150th Birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Her book Breaking Ground was published in April 2020. It is both a memoir and a call to action, a gripping account of Heidi’s quest to eradicate landmines from the face of the earth and firmly plant the roots of peace.
Bio Source: rootsofpeace.org