RUTHERFORD, Calif. – Heidi Kuhn tasted the fruits of her labors in September when she visited Croatia and sampled the first harvest from a vineyard that used to be a minefield.
“We ate the grapes,” she said. “We tasted peace.”
Kuhn is the founder of Roots of Peace, a humanitarian organization that is working to clear land mines and turn the earth back into farmland from Cambodia to Croatia – a project that has drawn the support of several Napa Valley vintners.
Over the past seven years, Roots of Peace, which Kuhn runs with her husband, Gary, has bankrolled the removal of hundreds of thousands of land mines and other unexploded ordnance in four countries and has helped plant vineyards and orchards in Afghanistan and Croatia, rice paddies in Cambodia and wheat fields in Iraq.
Last summer, Roots of Peace received $10 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to work with various partners, including the University of California at Davis, to restore grape and raisin vineyards in Afghanistan. (No wine grapes are being planted in the Muslim country, where alcohol is forbidden.)
For Kuhn, removing a land mine is one “small victory in the war on terrorism. Because a land mine is a seed of terror. Whether the boot of a soldier or the sandal of a child, it’s an indiscriminate weapon of destruction.”
The organization’s mines-to-vines project hires local mine-clearing companies to do the dangerous work, which often involves using modified tractors that can withstand explosions. Once the land is free of explosives, farmers move in.
“It’s not just about de-mining for de-mining’s sake,” said Liz Bernstein, coordinator for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. “It’s about returning the land to the community.”
In 2002, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 deaths and injuries from mines were occurring annually. Children particularly are at risk.
There are still an estimated 50 million to 60 million land mines in 80 countries, but progress is being made, Bernstein says. A 1997 treaty to ban the devices has been ratified or supported by more than 140 countries. The United States is not among them.
In 1997, Kuhn, 46, was asked to host a reception for a group working on land mine removal. She had director-turned-winemaker Francis Ford Coppola send over some California wine for a toast.
“That night, I just lifted my glass and said, ‘May the world go from mines to vines.’ And it just went quiet in the room and everyone said, ‘What did you say?’ ” Kuhn said. “They said, ‘You need to take this out of your living room.’ “
The next day, Kuhn started calling California vintners.
Among those supporting Roots of Peace is vineyard owner Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney. She said she jumped at the chance to actually accomplish something in a world of intractable problems.
Other supporters include Croatian immigrant Mike Grgich, founder of the Grgich Hills Cellar winery, and his nephew, winemaker Ivo Jeramaz, who came to the United States in 1986 and lost friends in the fighting in his homeland. Jeramaz and his uncle helped Kuhn locate areas that had the potential to be prime vineyards.
Tony Abrahim, an Afghan immigrant who runs the IMG Home stores in California, is a big supporter of Kuhn’s work in his native country, heavily mined after years of conflict.
“Every mine she takes from Afghanistan – that could be saving somebody’s legs or a kid’s eyes or hands or feet,” he said.