How One Woman Is Turning Mines into Vines

An unlikely activist works to convert minefields into farmland—to keep digging deeper for peace.
January 18, 2015

When the phone rang at 5 a.m., Heidi and Gary Kuhn feared the worst. Good news rarely comes that early. Fortunately the call didn’t concern any of their four grown children. But halfway around the world, members of their second “family” were under siege. Taliban fighters had attacked the Kabul, Afghanistan, offices of Roots of Peace, a charity aimed at converting minefields into farmland, which Heidi Kuhn had launched 17 years earlier.

A few months after the attack, her voice still quavers as she closes her eyes to summon the memory. “We lived the attack in real time,” she says. “We were on the phone for four hours, directing the staff through the 10-bedroom compound as we could hear our five guards exchanging gunfire with five Taliban. Just outside, a suicide bomber killed himself and two people who were just passing by.”

The attackers—whose intended target was the Christian day care center next door—were all killed, while the Roots of Peace employees and guards survived. Kuhn finds solace in the outcome, but no joy. “The gun battles were in the same bedrooms where my teenage son and I slept the summer before,” she says. “My credo is that love is more powerful than hate, but that day it was tested as never before.”

The idea for Roots of Peace came about in 1997, three weeks after the world’s best-known land mine activist, Princess Diana, died in a car crash. Kuhn agreed to host a reception at her San Rafael, Calif., home for touring land mine activists. In a toast to her guests, she said, “May the world go from mines to vines.” They urged her to act on that sentiment.

Although she was busy raising four children, she couldn’t escape her vision—as she puts it—of “transforming killing fields to vineyards, blood to wine and swords to plowshares.”

A former journalist for CNN and NewsLink International, Kuhn had no reservations about communicating the big initiatives or asking for support. Conflict-resolution studies when she was at the University of California, Berkeley also helped her navigate the figurative minefield of global diplomacy while forging partnerships between political rivals.

Working out of her basement for the first five years, she initially got funding from Napa and Sonoma vintners. They loved the idea of minefields being transformed into vineyards. As contributions continued—from individuals, religious organizations, universities, corporations and government agencies—Roots of Peace soon branched out to farming education and mine-victim assistance in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Angola, Vietnam and, most recently, Israel and the West Bank. Over the past 10 years, about $100 million in projects has been under contract.

The organization has made its greatest impact in Afghanistan, where an estimated 1 million farmers now grow table grapes, pomegranates, apricots and almonds on former minefields. Roots of Peace has also made tremendous strides in Vietnam, where more than 100,000 civilians—mostly farmers and kids—have been killed or injured by land mines since the war ended in 1975. “I’ve met some of the dear, brave Vietnamese farmers who have no legs now,” Kuhn says. “They’re grateful we’re demining the land so their children don’t have to suffer the same fate.”

With mines costing $300 to $1,000 to remove (but only $3 to $30 to deploy), the job of eliminating 70 million mines from 70 countries is staggering. But so is the human cost of ignoring them, Kuhn says. Land mines killed or maimed more than 3,600 people worldwide in 2012, representing a substantial decrease from the 25,000 casualities recorded in 1997. “By removing these seeds of hatred from the ground and replacing them with farmland, you create fertile grounds for peace. You’re giving people the ability to feed their families.”

Kuhn’s fondness for soaring metaphors is matched by on-the-ground accomplishments. Minefields will soon yield to olive orchards and a playground in a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, and there are plans to clear additional minefields—many at sites sacred to Jews, Muslims or Christians—on Jordan’s borders with Israel and the West Bank.

An estimated 1.5 million land mines are strewn throughout the Holy Land. But Kuhn has had productive meetings with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. “We earned the support of both sides,” she says. “In discussions, I stay out of politics by respecting the seeds we have in common, not those that divide us.”

In a recent trip to Israel, she crossed paths with Pope Francis. “After his Mass at the manger in Bethlehem,” she recalls, “I told him, ‘Let’s show what peace on earth can be by removing the mines.’ When you demine, you’re taking the hate out of the land and out of the heart. When you demine the soil, you demine the soul.”

Kuhn’s family is her biggest source of support. Husband Gary left his career as a tech executive to become the Roots of Peace president (she’s the CEO). Son Tucker worked with Vietnamese farmers before becoming director of operations. Daughter Kyleigh promotes demining while working as a fashion model; her idea at age 16 for the Penny Campaign led to more than 50 million pennies being collected from schoolchildren for school, soccer field and playground construction on demined land. Oldest child Brooks is a critical-care doctor who accompanied Kuhn to a minefield in Croatia when he graduated from high school, and her youngest, Christian, was with her when they stayed at the Kabul compound later destroyed by the Taliban.

Framed photos on the Roots of Peace walls are testaments to its international reach. They show women picking grapes, and a boys’ soccer team on demined Afghan land; an Israeli and a Palestinian side-by-side at a Bethlehem field; and Kuhn separately with Pope Benedict, John Kerry and Paul McCartney. On her desk is a conch shell from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan—a tribute to her listening skills. Beside her office door is a silk dress sewn for her by an Afghan tailor who lost both legs to a hidden mine. “I look at it whenever I need inspiration,” she says.

That’s happened often since the Kabul attack. “It was like a sock in the stomach,” she admits. “One of the innocent victims was a young woman about to graduate from medical school. I’ve given a portion of my salary in perpetuity to her family. You don’t look the other way. And I’ll go back to Kabul, but I can’t right now. When the Taliban learned from news accounts of the attack that we’re headed by a woman, I went on the front of their Facebook page. They want to kill me.”

Still the demining goes on. Southeast Asia is high on Kuhn’s list. So is Iraq, but it’s too dangerous for now. “I’d love to finish what we started in Mosul,” she says. “You need to remove the remnants of war and put armies of farmers back in the fields so they’re too busy to think of picking up guns.”

Speaking as always from the heart, she adds: “If I stopped doing this because it was too overwhelming or too scary, how selfish would that be? The farmers depend on us so their children won’t starve. We’re only getting started. We will keep digging deeper for peace.”

What mark do you want to leave on the world? Jim Rohn shares 9 principles necessary for a successful life and lasting legacy. 

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