Heidi Kühn is the Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace. She founded the humanitarian non-profit organization with a vision of turning Mines to Vines. After winning her own battle with cancer, Kühn was inspired to remove an insidious ‘cancer of the earth’—replacing remnants of war with bountiful farmland worldwide. Since 1997, her farmer-focused development model that restores farmland, food security, livelihoods and resilience after devastating conflicts has transformed war-torn lands worldwide. For more than a decade, she has shown millions of people living in war-torn regions around the world a way forward for restoring peace and prosperity through agriculture.
Tell us about your Cal connection. What was it like growing up in a Cal family?
My great-grandfather, Winfield Scott Thomas, was a professor at UC Berkeley in the late 1890s. His wife, Annie S. Thomas was one of the original founders of the Women’s Faculty Club at Berkeley which was founded in 1919 by women who were motivated by the vision of progress and for serving the public good. Excluded from the existing men’s faculty club, the women needed a space of their own within which they could flourish. This beautiful brown shingle building stood as the symbol of UC Berkeley’s commitment to equality of the sexes in higher education.
This proud venue representing the strength of women was the site of my Cal graduation celebration hosted by my aunt Marian Thomas Morrish, daughter of Winfield and Annie, when I received my degree in Political Economics of Industrial Societies in June 1979. Over 100 years later, the Women’s Faculty Club continues to provide a special place on campus for women to gather and learn from each other.
This tradition has been carried forth through generations, as my own daughter, Kyleigh Kühn, graduated from UC Berkeley majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies in June 2009.
Following her graduation, Kyleigh was a Project Representative/T.A. in Cal’s Study Abroad program in Political Economics in Argentina.
Over the years, she became a ‘model for peace’ working with top modeling agencies to spread global awareness and raise funds for Roots of Peace through her activism with VOGUE, Tom’s Shoes, Pirelli, Pandora, GAP, Coca-Cola, and others. Through the funds she raised during her highly successful modeling career, Kyleigh gave back to fund schools for girls in Afghanistan—carrying forth the torch lit by her Cal forbearers that women should be educated.
Our Kühn family continues to attend Cal Football games and is proud that our McNear family donated the bricks to build the original Cal Berkeley Memorial Stadium. As a fifth-generation descendent of Marin County, the bricks from McNear Brick & Block company continue to serve as a ‘foundation’ for athletics and higher education.
What were some experiences at Cal that were influential in shaping your personal and professional journey? Describe how your Political Economy training has been a significant part of that.
My husband, Gary Kühn, also attended Cal majoring in Economics in 1979.
Together, we studied late nights at Doe and Moffit Library to prepare our young minds for the future. It is extremely gratifying to work together today, as we pioneer the ‘economics of peace’ through our humanitarian non-profit, Roots of Peace.
You created “Roots for Peace” to help eliminate landmines and support agricultural development in post-conflict regions. What inspired you to pursue this work, and how has it evolved over the years?
Today, there are an estimated 60 million landmines in 60 countries which prevent the cultivation of agriculture in war-torn lands. Following the death of the late Princess Diana, the world learned that the land was not safe for farmers to plant and children to walk the earth without fear. This realization deeply inspired me to pursue a vision of turning MINES TO VINES—replacing the scourge of landmines with vineyards and orchards worldwide.
After winning my battle with cancer, I was inspired to found my non-profit organization Roots of Peace to remove an insidious cancer of the earth—replacing remnants of war with bountiful farmland. Since 1997, the work of Roots of Peace has impacted over one million farmers and families spanning Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Vietnam. It has facilitated the removal of unexploded bombs and landmines and restored the land to agricultural use with the planting of millions of grapevines and fruit trees
Please describe some of the most impactful stories or moments from your work that highlight the positive changes made through landmine removal.
As a Marin County mother of four children, I could not imagine a world where children could not hike the mountains like Mt. Tamalpais or run the beaches of Stinson, and worry about stepping on a landmine. Children would often kick their only soccer ball out of bounds, and lose a life or limb to a landmine. It takes only eight pounds to detonate a landmine, the average weight of a newborn child. These seeds of terror sown into the one earth we share is a violation of nature which produces fruit to feed her children. And, so I set out on a global quest to plant the Roots of Peace on Earth…
With conflicts proliferating in so many parts of the world—notably Ukraine, where over 30% of the land is now contaminated by landmines—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 rebuilding food systems, livelihoods, and communities after conflict.
Our Kühn family work turning ‘Mines to Vines’ shows the world the vital role agriculture must have in the resilient recovery from conflict and restoration of peace.
During the 1970’s when I attended UC Berkeley, The Vietnam War defined our generation. We were a generation of ‘Peace and Love’—yet there is no peace or love with explosive remnants of war left behind from conflict maim or kill innocent victims who walk the earth. Since The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, over 100,000 innocent Vietnamese have been maimed or killed by unexploded ordnance.
Roots of Peace has partnered with MAG (Mines Advisory Group) to remove millions of landmines. Our agricultural team has proudly trained over 10,000 Vietnamese farmers in the former DMZ of Quang Tri province to grow black pepper on former battlefields. We are exporting the black pepper to Morton & Basset Spice, and our Roots of Peace logo is featured on every bottle. This is the ‘business of peace’.
Every landmine removed, every tree planted—is an act of peace.
The fruits of the tree provide nourishment to humans, and supply carbon to restore the lungs of Mother Nature—providing balance to a world that has lost its moral compass.
How have you stayed connected with your Political Economy peers and colleagues over the years, and in what ways has your relationship with Berkeley's Political Economy program changed?
In 2002, I was deeply honored to receive the Cal Berkeley Alumni of the Year Award for Excellence and Achievement. Now, over 20 years later, I am proud to work with Professor Daniel Kammen, as I seek his wisdom and guidance to expand our business model for peace by defining Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA). Professor Kammen proudly was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007 and continues to advise our Roots of Peace team regarding ‘best practices’ in regenerative agriculture. Our business model for peace is to DEMINE—REPLANT—REBUILD communities after the guns of war have been silenced.
Recently, Roots of Peace won the 2023 World Food Prize award for our farmer-focused development model that revitalizes farmland, food security, livelihoods, and resilience after devastating conflict. This ‘Nobel Prize of Agriculture’ will be presented in Des Moines, Iowa on October 26, 2023
The Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice will be presented in Mumbai, India on November 26, 2023
What advice do you have for individuals who want to, or are just starting to get involved in humanitarian efforts to drive positive change?
My best advice is that we, as humans, are capable of doing great good in this world. It doesn’t matter whether we see ourselves as ordinary or extraordinary, however, those words might get defined. But, I know, from a lifetime of real-world experience, that if your cause is just and your determination strong, you can achieve things beyond your wildest imagination!
Heidi Kühn is a Charter Hills Society Member of the Social Sciences division. If you'd like to learn more, please go to https://ls.berkeley.edu/join-charter-hill-society-social-sciences.