Bay Area nonprofit Roots of Peace helps remove landmines in Vietnam

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ByCheryl Jennings KGO logo
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Bay Area nonprofit helps remove landmines in Vietnam
A group of Bay Area women raised more than $100,000 to support San Rafael-based nonprofit Roots of Peace's efforts to remove landmines in Vietnam. Then they flew there to see firsthand how that money is helping.

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- A Bay Area woman was among the guests on Monday at a state banquet welcoming President Barack Obama to Vietnam. Heidi Kuhn is the founder of a group called Roots of Peace.

Recently, some Bay Area women raised more than $100,000 to support that group's efforts to remove landmines in Vietnam. Then they flew there to see firsthand how that money is helping.

We traveled with the San Rafael-based nonprofit Roots of Peace to see the work they're doing to help farmers reclaim their land from remnants of war. Many of them lost legs and arms to landmines, years after the deadly conflict.

The images many remember of Vietnam during the deadly conflict that ended in the 70s include guns, soldiers, and chaos. The aftermath of that war is still leaving scars on those who served and their families.

It's also still affecting families living in the former battle zones because of landmines and unexploded bombs.

Ngo The Thiem is one of those victims. It's tough for him farm his land. He's missing part of one arm because a landmine destroyed it when he was just a kid.

Through a translator he told ABC7 News that one day when he was 15 years old he was in the field to dig and plant trees when a bomb or something exploded and he lost his arm.

He's one of 2,000 farmers enrolled in programs in rural Vietnam that are bringing hope and increasing prosperity to poor farmers. The farming clubs were created by Roots of Peace.

This farmer is growing taro plants, a high protein vegetable, in sandy soil near the ocean. But, he learned how to make it work.

That's thanks to local Roots of Peace experts. They taught him and other farmers in the clubs, men and women, how to grow high value crops using the latest technology to control pests and disease and improve the soil. They have to pay half of the cost of a startup package, including seeds and fertilizer, to enroll. Lien Vo runs the Roots of Peace programs in Vietnam.

"We ask the farmers to pay a contribution to ask their commitment," said Vo. "If they have to pay their cash in advance, they have to think as an investment. After first year, many, many farmers they say, 'Oh I agree I agree. I want to try this project.'"

Roots of Peace began working in Vietnam in 2010 with an anonymous donation, in a partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the cooperation of the Vietnamese government.

"The Vietnamese government has been just incredible," said Kuhn. "You cannot work in any country around the world where Roots of Peace works, without permission of the local government."

The first step -- get rid of the old landmines and unexploded bombs.

The demining organization Mines Advisory Group, known as MAG, is working in the Quang Tri province, a former major battle zone. MAG trains local citizens to become deminers.

After the explosives are removed, farmers can safely plant a variety of crops including taro and pepper, which grows on vines.

Dr. Nguyen Binh is the leading agricultural consultant with Roots of Peace. He's introducing these women because they're major donors to Roots of Peace.

"It's just amazing and heartwarming to see what Roots of Peaec does in this country," said Roots of Peace donor Gaby Federal.

They traveled thousands of miles from Marin County to Vietnam at their own expense to meet farmers in the program.

They were inspired by Roots of Peace founder Kuhn and her family.

Her son, Tucker, ran the Vietnam programs for three years.

The Marin women joined a campaign called Become a Peacebuilder. they raised $125,000 in one night. The donations were matched by the U.S. Department of State.

"It is overwhelming to raise money which you think is for a good cause and then see the cause firsthand," said Roots of Peace donor Karen Plastiras.

Fellow Roots of Peace donor Jill Kantola adds, "It's wonderful and I'm really pleased to be here and seeing it."

Another donor, Marianne Mullins, said, "I think being able to clean up these fields and demine and allowing these farmers and these families to enjoy their properties again and be able to plant a vine like this and see the fruits of their labor, it's just fantastic."

On Tuesday we'll take you to a health clinic, where the work had a profound impact on the donors. They saw the Roots of Peace farmers getting new prosthetic legs. And the women said they are inspired to raise more money to help farmers in the program.

Click here for more stories by Cheryl Jennings about Roots of Peace and the nonprofit's work around the world.