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Humanitarian group works to build productive agriculture in war-torn areas

Posted on Thursday, December 28, 2023 at 8:17 am

Mines to Vines initiative started in 1997

By Stan Schwartz

When Megan Perry-Kaiser talked with the Bowling Green Rotary Club last week, she brought the story of Heidi Kuhn to life. Kuhn is the founder and chief executive officer of Roots of Peace, a humanitarian nonprofit group dedicated to replacing landmines with sustainable agricultural farmland.

“In his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Norman Borlaug said, ‘If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread, otherwise there will be no peace,’” Perry-Kaiser said.

She noted that thousands of people traveled to Des Moines, Iowa this year for the World Food Prize. It’s a formal event that includes Iowa’s governor along with the World Food Prize Laureates.

“Every person there has made a major contribution to solving global hunger,” she said. This gathering brings together her two favorite topic, bringing peace in the world and brining more food to those who need it the most.

She quoted Borlaug again, noting that “A country with food has many problems, but a country without food has only one.”

“If we look at the whole world in that perspective,” she explained, “and the conflicts that we’re watching on the news, the thing that always comes back to my mind is—was the (conflict) caused by food or was it caused by hunger?”

There is a silent part to the wars we see, she added.

She said, “Hunger is caused by three things: food, income, and peace. In turn, hunger is a breeding ground for further conflict by burying hope and stoking desperation. Hunger and conflict are inextricably linked, just as food and nutrition security are with peace.”

She noted that we often talk about food security along with national security. That’s not just in the U.S.

“We mean food security around the world is national security,” she said.

This year, she said, the World Food Prize honored Heidi Kühn, who is world renowned for her work replacing the remnants of war, such as landmines, with bountiful farmland via her leadership of Roots of Peace.

When she worked with former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, they had agriculture development teams.

“National Guardsmen from Missouri were sent to provinces in Afghanistan with similar climates and similar soils, and farmers with guns protected farmers over there hoping to get started agriculture—not produce poppies for the Taliban, but instead produce food for their local economies.”

They went in and built canning facilities and cold storage for the farmers; things that are taken for granted in the U.S., she explained.

Kühn, she said, was inspired by watching Princess Diana in 1997, who would walk minefields to call attention to the problem of mines left in the ground sometimes decades after a conflict had ended.

Kühn is a woman on a mission to replace landmines with grapevines,” Perry-Kaiser said.

“She had a career in agriculture journalism,” she added. “But she had to give that up when she got cancer.”

After her recovery, Perry-Kaiser said, Kühn discovered a new mission in life after watching Princess Diana.

She worked with Robert Mondavi, an American winemaker, Miljenko Grgich and Diane Disney Miller to raise funds to remove landmines left behind by the Croatian War of Independence. It was the fear of those mines in this wine-producing area that stopped farmers.

Kühn, she said, realized that more than mine removal was needed for rural communities to fully recover. She also turned attention to helping farmers re-establish vineyards and orchards using modern techniques.

She has also done work in Afghanistan and Vietnam.

“And not only are they trying to clear these minefields,” she said, “but they are trying to help the farmers regain the actual use of the land.”

Kühn has also been working with farmers who have been wounded by mines.

It’s a big, long, and slow process, Perry-Kaiser said. Currently, in Afghanistan, Kühn is working with women to grow and produce peppercorns.

One of the women she helped, Perry-Kaiser said, called Kühn to thank her because she and her husband could now care for all four of their children.

“Since the start of the work in Ukraine, more than 30% of the agricultural land has been mined,” Perry-Kaiser said. “That just from this war,” she added.

Kühn partnered with Rotary International to raise funds to begin restoring vineyards and value chains in Ukraine as soon as it becomes possible to remove the landmines, Perry-Kaiser said.

The longer you go without those crops, the longer you have desperate and unhappy people, Perry-Kaiser explained.

“And when they’re angry, they often turn their anger toward the world’s superpowers,” she said. What she is doing is all about local families, local farmers, which has a huge contribution toward world peace,” Perry-Kaiser said.

“I would never have thought one person could have this kind of impact,” she added. “It’s a good reminder that each of us can do something little and sometimes it turns into something big. But sometimes it’s something that the world will never know you did. But maybe we can help sow the seeds in our own lives during this holiday season and beyond.”