From Mines to Vines

Founder Heidi Kuhn hopes that her Roots of Peace can help rid the world of a silent terrorist.

Articulate and poised from years on camera as a CNN reporter and later as the founder and president of the television news company NewsLink International, Heidi Kuhn stepped to the podium in a fashionable violet suit. She was at the Croatian embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the launch of her Roots of Peace Web site and to introduce its humanitarian Mines to Vines program, which removes destructive land mines around the world and returns tillable land to the farmers.

“It all started with a toast,” Kuhn explained. When hosting a party for land-mine removal activists in her California home in 1997 only one month after the death of Princess Diana (an outspoken proponent of land-mine removal), little did Kuhn know that her simple toast “that the world would go from mines–to vines” would be an epiphany, followed by a calling. Only two weeks after a request from the United Nations Association, she assembled in her home a group of prestigious social entrepreneurs and six consul generals interested in the land-mine cause. Since that time, she has spearheaded an international movement to rid the world of its most perfect and silent terrorist–land mines.

Kuhn would be the first to tell you she’s not operating in a vacuum. Unlike some visionaries with a dream, she has had the heart, the will, and the means to carry her dreams to fruition. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors purchased their land from the Spanish, Kuhn had the connections to enlist the support of twelve Napa Valley vineyards to help underwrite her efforts, which seems especially fitting since her primary goal has been to help farmers plant grapevines.

Her initial mine-removal efforts have focused on Croatia, starting in the village of Dragalic near the Bosnian border. Since Dragalic is inland and has a continental climate, it has been replanted with mostly white grape varieties like gewüztraminer, chardonnay, riesling, and some sauvignon blanc. Along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast near Zadar, where a Mediterranean climate dominates, red grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and plavic mali (an ancestor of the zinfandel grape) lend themselves to replanting. The Roots of Peace effort in Zadar is sponsored by the Rotary Clubs of San Rafael and Zadar.

Napa vintner and Croatian immigrant Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is one of Kuhn’s enthusiastic supporters. A recent gala in Yountville, California, honored the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1976 Paris wine tasting in which Grgich singlehandedly put California wines on the world map when his chardonnay took first place in a blind taste test against French white burgundies, its transatlantic cousins. The proceeds of the night’s wine auction netted $64,000 for Roots of Peace. Independently, Grgich has pledged his support to help train a new generation of wine makers in his native country. [See “Dalmatian Sun and Wine.”]

Heidi Kuhn brings to the table a unique combination of backgrounds. Born into an active Republican family, she chose to remain with the party after graduating from the liberal bastion of the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s with a degree in the political economics of industrial societies. Kuhn says the combination of politics and education helped forge her passion for global peace. In 1997, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her to the California Council of the Humanities, which celebrates the history, culture, and spirit of the state.

Kuhn is a cervical cancer survivor and had a surprise pregnancy after surgery to remove the tumor. Her miracle fourth child, Christian, is now six years old. “I started Roots of Peace when he was only two,” reflects Kuhn. “I believe everybody should have the willingness to do the most with what they have been given.”

Her family–three sons, a daughter, and a very understanding husband who shares her commitment to global peace–keep her busy. Despite the whirlwind of activity, she gives individual attention to each of her children. Kuhn took her daughter on a rite-of-passage trip to Croatia over Mother’s Day last year. “My daughter is a sixth-generation Californian. I wanted to impart to her the same respect for the land that was strongly instilled in me by my grandmothers. For me, respect transcends dollar value,” says Kuhn. She also plans to take her older sons on similar pilgrimages before they go to college.

A Worldwide Effort 

Since their appearance during the U.S. Civil War, land mines have maimed and killed innocent victims around the world. “I will never forget the face of a woman who lost her husband to a land mine when he started to till the fields after war ended in order to feed his family,” says Kuhn. No one knows the exact number, but there are an estimated 110 million active land mines in seventy countries worldwide. While it takes only $3 to $30 to plant a land mine, it costs up to $1,000 to remove one. So in addition to Napa wine makers, Kuhn has drawn the support of several international and governmental  organizations.

Soon after the initial 1997 meeting in her home, Kuhn traveled to Washington, D.C., with Grgich’s daughter Violet and Judy Jordan of Napa’s J Winery. There they joined Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner honoring nineteen public and private partnerships devoted to ridding the world of mines by 2010. Later, Kuhn worked with Jim Lawrence, director of public-private partnerships in the State Department’s Office of Humanitarian Demining Programs, to organize an official visit to Croatia.

Today, Kuhn is actively working with the Croatian government and local citizens to find suitable land for growing grapes and wheat. “Roots of Peace wants to help plant vineyards and wheat fields in Croatia,” she says. “Hopefully, breaking bread and drinking wine with neighbors will bring goodwill.”

The week after the wine auction, Kuhn went to the United Nations to meet with the office of the secretary-general. She was delighted to find that Roots of Peace had been chosen as one of four models of private-sector success in conflict zones by the UN’s Global Compact. This organization was established in 1999 at the instigation of Kofi Annan, who challenged the business community to involve itself in issues of environment, labor, and human rights (see In hopes that Kuhn’s efforts in Croatia could be applied to other countries and regions, the United Nations asked her to present her work in Geneva this past summer at Global Compact’s annual meeting.

While in Europe, Kuhn spoke at the Fourth Dubrovnik Conference in August along with Jody Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her demining efforts. While Williams focuses on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which the United States has not yet endorsed, Kuhn remains concerned with the humanitarian issues of demining.

After the conference, Williams joined Kuhn on a visit to Dragalic. Their trip coincided with the fourth anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic death. Only a few weeks before her accident, she had visited the Balkans and catapulted the issue of land mines to the forefront of the international agenda.

Back in California, Kuhn is not resting on her laurels. She thinks it’s time to “come out of the basement” (literally, since her office has been in the basement of her home) and take Roots of Peace to the world level. “Roots of Peace has invited CARE USA to partner on a pilot project in Cambodia, where they have been resettling poor villagers on demined land since 1990. I would like to plant rice there,” says Kuhn. Angola is another possible project. “In Angola, I hope to bring on board some major sponsors like Chevron, which has many drilling interests offshore and already has been a strong supporter of Roots of Peace.”

She wants to help replant coffee and mangoes, which were Angola’s primary exports before the war. By returning demined land–field by field–into productive agricultural use, Kuhn hopes to turn “swords into plowshares,” an Old Testament vision that is still worth pursuing today.

For more information:
Roots of Peace
Phone: (415) 455-8008