What are the Moonies up to?Margaret Hebblethwaite
Followers of the Reverend Moon are setting up a mission in one of the world?s most remote and least populated areas. Why is this happening? A former assistant editor of The Tablet who is now living in Paraguay went to find out.
TO the consternation of the local people, the followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon have bought 400,000 hectares of land (that is 4,000 square kilometres) at Puerto Casado, a river port in the Chaco area of north-west Paraguay. The campaign against the Moonie take-over has been headline news nationally for weeks on end. But the puzzle is why the Moonies should want this type of land: it has been classified as unproductive territory and found to be economic only for cattle-farming.
And the mystery thickens when we discover that the Moonies are buying land all up and down the River Paraguay, on both the Paraguayan and the Brazilian sides, especially in the higher reaches known as the Pantanal, one of the most underpopulated but ecologically rich areas of the world. It is a land of burning heat and millions of mosquitoes, of man-eating jaguars and crocodiles, of poisonous snakes and anacondas that kill by constriction, of salty earth where no wells can be sunk, and of river banks that get flooded by up to two metres. It is a land that can be reached by privately chartered tiny four-seater aircraft (Cessnas), which can land on grass, but otherwise is almost impossible to get to. It is a land where only satellite phones can function.
To the northern reaches of this sweltering land I made my slow way, nearly two days? journey by rickety cargo boat from Puerto Casado ? itself a place exceedingly difficult to reach except by air. The few passengers picked their way through piles of building materials and heaps of old furniture, and by night strung their hammocks up above dimly lit crates of fruit. As we got further north I witnessed the shooting and skinning and gutting of seven carpinchos (a sort of water rodent the size of a pig); blood ran down the deck.
I had been advised we would arrive at Puerto Leda, where I knew there was a Moonie colony, around six in the morning, giving me all day before the same boat passed again in the evening to take me away again. This turned out to be a serious misjudgment: we arrived at midnight. I was given a quick briefing by another regular passenger. There is nothing at Leda except for the Moonies, she said, nothing at all like a guest house where you could stay. And the Moonies have fierce dogs that bite. She added, But don?t worry: at least one Moonie always comes down when the boat comes in. You can speak to him.
One Moonie did come down eventually, though I was waiting several minutes in the blackness of the night on the crocodile-ridden bank before he arrived. (Fortunately, I did not see the crocodiles until the next morning.) He was Japanese, and immediately replied to me in English when I said I was a journalist who would like to visit their colony if it was permitted. I am from a Catholic paper, I explained, not wishing there to be any misunderstanding about where I stood.
He looked taken aback, but not hostile. There is not a problem about you visiting, said Michihito Sano, but there is a problem about where you can stay. This is the middle of the night, and we are all men up there. Eventually he spoke to a military officer, based on the bank, who woke their cook ? the only woman around ? and fixed me up a mattress on the floor of her hut.
At 6.30 a.m. the next day, Mr Sano returned to collect me. It was true about the dogs: an enormous black Great Dane, higher than waist height and with a jawful of long white teeth, paid me so much attention that two men had to pull him away and try to shut him into a cage. I watched them fail, as Mr Sano and I entered the first building where an excellent Japanese breakfast was waiting for me.
We were in a room where an hour of prayer had just finished, consisting, I was informed, of readings from the speeches of Reverend Moon. Four Moonies came to sit round my table and answer questions. They were courteous, genuinely considerate, apparently sincere and even quite open. They told me about the tornado that had whipped tiles off the roofs the previous week, and introduced me to a couple of wild pigs they had tamed. They showed me the helmet of mosquito netting that must be worn every time you leave the building in the hottest months ? otherwise your face will be covered with thousands of bites; and you must wear thick protective clothing: ordinary shirts are useless, the mosquitoes just bite through them.
They gave me an aerial photo of the place, without my asking, and showed me their accounts, again without my asking. The relevance of this is that the Moonies have been accused of money laundering, drug-trafficking and arms-trading. Such allegations may be a hysterical over-reaction. On the other hand, what on earth are the Moonies doing with huge tracts of land in the middle of nowhere?
All the money for this project comes from voluntary donations, said Takeru Kamiyama, who is in charge of Puerto Leda, and he showed me the list of offerings for that year, mostly in the range of $5,000 dollars and some more than $50,000 dollars. The total came to more than $1 million. Will it be enough for what he wants to do here? When I need more I can ask for more; that is not a problem. He told me it all came from Japanese Moonie missionaries or church leaders. That?s strange, I said, how do missionaries come to earn so much money to donate in a single year to a single project? He said they asked their wives and children to contribute, and some had businesses, and of course they all had their salaries. So the church pays them salaries, which they pay back in the form of donations, he said.
The land at Puerto Leda amounts to 80,000 hectares, but of course the aerial photo only showed the immediate vicinity of the river, where the Moonies (13 Japanese, only one of whom spoke Spanish) were now constructing a living base. A couple of abandoned houses were being renovated and fitted with satellite dishes (for the phones, the computers and the television); a water-purifying plant was being prepared (it was not yet functioning); a vegetable garden was beginning to grow radishes, aubergines and cucumbers (used in Japanese rather than Paraguayan cuisine) and a centre of formation was being constructed (it will accommodate 50 people), but the pride and the joy of the place was the VIP guest house for visits of Reverend Moon. This was near completion, and we took off our muddy shoes before walking up the shimmering grey outside staircase on to the polished wooden floor upstairs where there was a grand dining room, capacious bedroom and luxury bathroom with a jet-stream bath.
From the outside balcony, my hosts pointed out some crocodiles swimming in the river, black dots from where we were. It was all very impressive, this taming of the wilderness, and the Moonies were beginning to relax. I understand that Reverend Moon has been imprisoned in the United States, I ventured. He knows all about that, said Mr Sano of his colleague, Mr Kamiyama. He was in prison with him.
How interesting, I said. You must be very close to Reverend Moon. Were you his only colleague to be imprisoned with him? Yes, he said, and before I came here I was president of the Church in Japan.
I was impressed. You are obviously a very important person in the movement, I said. (Later a Moonie pastor from Guyana confirmed to me that Mr Kamiyama was one of the most senior Church members in the world, but now taking a much more humble position. Or apparently so, for we do not yet know the importance of the project in the Pantanal.)
I asked many questions about that fascinating moment in the Reverend Moon?s history. It was one of six imprisonments, they told me, in various countries, and the excuse for this pure political persecution, they told me, had been that Mr Kamiyama had brought $2 million into the United States and opened an account in the name of Reverend Moon. I should have put in the name of the Church. It was a small mistake, he said. As a result Reverend Moon was accused of evading $7,000 in taxes. Mr Kamiyama confided: I don?t like politicians. They are very complicated. They change their minds very quickly.
What do you believe the real reason was? I asked them. Mr Sano had no doubt: the Moonies had been trying to urge President Carter to be strong in standing up against Communism, so the Democratic Party did not like their movement. Carter had not been supporting the South American governments that had been most determined in making a stand against the influx of Communism in countries like Nicaragua, Chile and Paraguay. Carter had dithered, talking about human rights abuses, but, said Mr Sano, if we have to attack it is the Communist governments we must attack, for they are violating far more human rights.
It was the only moment my blood almost froze amid all that warmth. It confirmed the reports I had received that the Moonies had been linked with the most repressive of the South American dictatorships. A book they gave me to read,The Fruits of True Love: the lifework of Revd Sun Myung Moon, provided further corroboration. God chose the United States to stand up to Communism, I read, and to this end the Moonies founded Causa International, which visited such like-minded campaigners as Pinochet in Chile, Rios Montt in Guatemala and Stroessner in Paraguay.
IT was time to ask about the drug-trafficking and arms-dealing. Rumour, said Mr Kamiyama. I hate drugs. Reverend Moon never takes alcohol, so I follow his way. Another tricky question concerned Reverend Moon?s wives and the accusations of infidelities by the founder of a movement that preaches family love and claims to take a stronger line on chastity than any other faith, including the Catholics. (It is officially named the Federation of Families for Peace and World Unification.) I had been told that Reverend Moon had had four wives, and that the first three died because they disobeyed him. Mr Sano and Mr Kamiyama vigorously denied it. He has only had one other wife, they said, and she did not die; she went away, because she did not believe in him. As for womanising, Mr Kamiyama said sadly: I cannot understand why they say that.
So divorce was permitted after all, at least for the founder. My hosts explained it was all part of Reverend Moon?s altruism. He teaches that you must love the world more than your own nation, your own nation more than your own family, and your own family more than your own self. So Moon?s mission took precedence over the disbelief of his wife. Similarly, these men in Leda had all left their wives to come and work on the project. They might fly over to Chile, or Japan, or London, or the United States, to visit their wives and children every two or three months. But they were missionaries: their work was here.
Had Reverend Moon chosen their wives for them? Yes, and some had only met their wives on the day of the mass wedding (when millions of couples are united worldwide, on a single day, with satellite links from venues all around the world). His idea is always to harmonise this world, so he links people from different nations, and joins black to white. I was to meet a vivid example of this the next day at Fuerte Olimpo where there is another Moonie colony: a Japanese wife married to a Korean husband (the two countries are historic enemies), who after their wedding had no common language, so they communicated in English with a dictionary.
But the Reverend Moon only chooses wives for those who ask him, my hosts told me. We believe Reverend Moon can read the mind of people very easily. We believe and trust in him, so we prefer to ask him. We might fall in love with someone, but we do not know the future. And so, said Mr Kamiyama, his face glowing with the memory, I asked Reverend Moon: please choose me a wife. And are you happily married? I asked him. Did I detect a shadow and a hesitation? Then he replied, I have four children and four grandchildren; I am very happy now.
Just who do they believe the Reverend Moon is? The Son of God. The second Messiah, is the answer. At the time of the first Messiah there had been a chance that Jesus could eliminate all evils, but then he was crucified. A Moonie book I read later explained this clearly. Christians have traditionally believed that the death of Jesus on the cross was predestined according to God?s original plan. But it was not so. The crucifixion of Jesus was a great mistake. It all fitted together with the photos of Moon and his wife, around the walls ? an 80-year- old man in an impeccable suit with a wife in long rich robes, like a king and queen. Here was a gospel of worldly success and wealth in place of Jesus? upside-down kingdom.
The last building under construction that the Moonies showed me was a new house for the military. It had six rooms, plus shower and toilet. It was very nice, and the military man kept telling me how nice it was. He confirmed it was a present. Moonies know the importance of getting on with those in authority. Mr Kamiyama had already told me quite openly what a good relationship they had built with the local army commander, who had given them the skin of a jaguar he had shot, and explained that is how they came to have two military guarding their place. It was of a piece with what I had been told about the Moonies paying off the debts of the mayor in Fuerte Olimpo to get his co-operation, and buying a new jeep for the police in Puerto Casado.
But most bizarre of all is the question of what on earth the Moonies are doing in the Pantanal. After all, they call themselves missionaries, but there are not exactly a lot of people to evangelise. There are 90 Paraguayan labourers working on the construction, but then the Moonies do not talk their language. Our purpose is to help people. We are providing a lot of employment in a place where there are no jobs, said Mr Nakata. But you didn?t buy 80,000 hectares here just to provide jobs in a place where nobody lives, did you? I asked.
They spoke about the hopes of developing ecological tourism. There will always be some travellers who relish a challenge, but it is difficult to see this kind of visit to the land of mosquitoes bringing in a mass movement of tourists. Another explanation was: Reverend Moon is thinking of the future of the planet, the lack of food and the increase in population. He is thinking to use this type of land to produce food. The food would be transported down the river, where they now have many bases, past Uruguay at the estuary where they are spending 200 million dollars on building a new port, to the hungry of Asia and Africa.
THERE are various puzzles about this. Why not buy the land in Africa or Asia, closer to where the hunger is? It is true there are fishing possibilities in the river, but the land of the Chaco is one of the most difficult areas in the world to cultivate: much of the soil is impermeable, and cannot hold water. We know this, said Kunihiko Shibanuma, but we want to do some research and find what we can produce. We are not so professional. We have a spirit to save the world, but we don?t have so much skill.
One might think, then, that before each new purchase in the Pantanal there would be some close consultation with Moonies already working there, but the absence of such collaboration is the biggest mystery of all. Why were they building a centre for formation at Puerto Leda when there was already one at their next site downriver at Fuerte Olimpo? Had they talked to Fuerte Olimpo about it? No. I report directly to Reverend Moon. Just what instructions had Reverend Moon given when he sent them here? Take care of this land. What was the movement planning to do with the 440,000 hectares it had bought at Puerto Casado? I don?t know. I never go there. The office for this project is in Tokyo. But the office for the Puerto Casado project will be somewhere else, perhaps in Korea, perhaps in Uruguay.
Such ignorance and such trust in authority are strangely reminiscent of the techniques of armies or resistance movements who need to preserve the secrecy of its war plans: each group knows what its orders are and its next point of contact, nothing more. The more shared knowledge there is, the more risk of discovery. I am convinced that those I spoke to were sincere good people, who were not lying to me. If there were anything sinister planned for the Pantanal, they would not know about it.
The Pantanal is not land for development, for much of it is designated a nature reserve. Its wealth is in its ecological purity ? it is spoken of as one of the lungs of the world, an unspoilt source of unpolluted river water. Is ownership of this kind of territory a financial speculation or a prestige purchase? New purchases are being added all the time: there is talk of the Moonies investigating Puerto Sastre and Boquer?n, and the Guyanan pastor told me they were looking to buy another place along the Brazilian bank where they could build more boats.
There are some obvious strategic strengths to the land Moon has bought. First, the Chaco is a well-known drug corridor, where drugs from Bolivia and other countries can effectively disappear before resurfacing in Brazil or elsewhere: the remoteness of the region and the corruption of the Paraguayan authorities provide suitable conditions for this. Secondly, there is talk of making a hydrovia, or fast waterway, by hollowing out the River Paraguay, so that bigger ships than my little cargo boat could travel from the centre of the continent to the Atlantic: but the ecologists are set against it. Thirdly, there is a project for Brazil to build a major highway across the heart of South America to the Pacific: there would be a case for its passing through the Moonie territory close to Puerto Casado.
And the Pantanal is not the end of Reverend Moon?s ambition. When I asked Mr Kamiyama what the letters P and A meant on his list of donors, he told me they stood for whether someone?s chief interest was in the Pantanal or the Amazon. My eyebrows shot up. Did the Moonies own land in the Amazon as well? Almost nothing yet. That would evidently be the next major takeover. We are left with a puzzling series of contradictions: a movement which professes to welcome visitors, yet protects itself with guard dogs, police and soldiers; which claims to promote the family, yet separates husbands from wives; which presents itself as Christian, yet believes the crucifixion was a mistake; which invokes world harmony, yet promotes conflict over the politics of the Left; which buys inhospitable land allegedly for cultivation, yet does not know how it will go about it.
And no one but Reverend Moon knows the master plan. This became more evident when I talked with the Japanese wife at Fuerte Olimpo. Her husband had been running seminars with a hundred Moonies from all over the world coming every month. Now that had all stopped. They did not know why. They did not know if it would begin again. Meanwhile they were looking after the place, awaiting instructions from Reverend Moon. But she reassured me there would be a purpose in it all. We don?t know much about what is planned for the other places in the Pantanal. But Father Moon knows. He has a project. The nearest she could get to explaining it was that he wants to make a model country; a Paradise. Bishop Zacar?as Ortiz of the Chaco Paraguay vicariate has issued a warning to his faithful, telling them that the Moonies are trying to establish the kingdom of God on earth under the empire of Moon. It seems as though Ortiz was not so wrong.