It was during a fishing trip to Brazil's remote south-western swamplands in 1994 that the Rev Sun Myung Moon hatched his dream of building a haven for his Moonie sect. "Brazil is huge, with a small mind. We will open it and show that the Third World can become rich," he is said to have told his devotees.
So enchanted was he with a marshy region that lies on the edges of the Pantanal National Park in the state of Matto Grosso do Sul that he started buying up land. His first acquisition was a 100,000-acre ranch on shrub-covered flatland on the confluence of two rivers, the Prata and Miranda, teeming with rare fish. Now, years later, the 82-year-old Korean billionaire, who founded and heads the controversial religious group formally known as the Unification Church, has bought up so much land in this remote area that the authorities are growing increasingly concerned.
Last year the Matto Grosso do Sul state legislature began to investigate Moon's activities. His purchase of 500,000 acres spreading across the border into Paraguay - the area includes an entire coastal town - has made them especially edgy. He now owns a large sector of the international border.
Moon has vowed to invest as much as $2 billion in the area over the coming years, but the governor of Matto Grosso do Sul, Jose Osorio dos Santos, has called his land-buying quest in the region "a great worry". The Brazilian intelligence agency has been investigating Moon's activities. Military authorities believe his purchases are a threat to national sovereignty, and voice fears that the controversial sect leader is trying to construct his own nation in the heart of South America. The Catholic Church in the area has accused the sect of using cash incentives to lure locals. The federal police force has launched probes into money laundering by a former Moon employee, and has confiscated the Unification Church's banking records in Brazil.
Lawyers defending Moon's organisation in Brazil have dismissed the charges, alleging they amount to nothing but religious persecution. Regardless of what may come to light through official inquiries, what seems clear is that the Moonies view this under-populated, barren corner of South America as an ideal place for reviving their messianic leader's quest to change the world and bring "global peace".
Famed for holding mass weddings between Moonies he picks at random from a pile of photographs - and for his claims to be "the true father of the world" - the Rev Moon has lost some of his following over the past years. He founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954 and quickly gained a reputation for accumulating business interests worldwide. His church is said to have had some 4.6 million members across the globe.
The sect considers Jesus to be a failed messiah and the Rev Moon the chosen one. Moon's preaching mixes elements of Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism, and focus much on his self-professed "gift" at matchmaking.
In the 1980s Moon had some 30,000 followers in the US, his main base. But in recent years numbers have fallen to a few thousand. His reputation suffered in the 1970s when he was briefly jailed for tax evasion and, more recently, after a scandal in which one of his son's wives accused her husband of being addicted to cocaine.
Moon's South American venture looks like a last-ditch attempt to resurrect his sect. He still heads a sizeable business empire, which includes the Washington Times and a university in the United States. However, Moon's investments in the past few years have all gone into his South American property purchases. In addition to his lands in the backwater region between Paraguay and Brazil, he owns property in Argentina and a bank, an estate and a newspaper in Uruguay.
The sprawling ranch where the rivers Prata and Miranda meet appears to be the centre of the project. Moon has called it the New Hope Ranch. It is four hours from the nearest big city, and five miles outside the poor farming town of Jardim. The drive takes you through shrublands dotted with skeletal cattle, the last part along a pot-holed gravel track. "Welcome to the Garden of Eden," reads a huge sign hanging over the entrance.
It seems an unlikely setting for a vision of paradise. While the edges of the Pantanal were once covered in rich sub-tropical forest, most of it has been deforested by cattle ranchers in the past decade. But that seems not to have deterred Moon. "We will make from this a fertile haven where birds and animals can roam," he promised followers - mainly from Japan, Korea, Spain and the United States - who flocked to the ranch to help in the task of recreating his Utopian vision.
Protecting themselves from the piercing sun with wide-brimmed hats, they brave long afternoons by mosquito infested rivers, planting seedlings in the rocky fields. "We plan to reforest these dusty flatlands with native species and plant crops and show local farmers that this area can be resurrected," says Cesar Zadusky, the ranch manager.
Zadusky runs the farm in Moon's absence - for the time being Moon commutes between his $10 million apartment in New York and a luxury estate in Uruguay. But he has said that he hopes eventually to take up full-time residence in the New Hope Ranch. At present, when he and his wife visit, they stay in a small wooden hut.
Moon has already spent more than $25 million on the ranch. The site is made up of a 3,000-seat conference hall, a temple, more than a dozen identical dormitory buildings to house the 2,000 sect members who live permanently on the ranch, and another characterless building for visiting devotees.
Sect members live in army-style dormitories with bunk beds and work all day ploughing fields, building greenhouses and planting vegetable gardens. They can be seen washing clothes in seemingly endless rows of sinks outside their quarters. They do not speak to visiting journalists; Zadusky speaks for them.
In one corner of the ranch an ostrich breeding farm equipped with a computerised hatching machine has been set up. Ostrich meat is a delicacy in Brazil's business capital, Sao Paulo, and therefore a lucrative product.
The ranch has a school for 300 children and there are plans to build a university. Of the 200 or so locals who have joined the sect, most have done so to ensure a place for their children in the well-equipped school, which now has 250 children but aims to grow and take more than 600.
"Before we can build a heaven on earth we have to give an education and training to the poor illiterate locals," says Zadusky. "We are planning a university and a research centre, to bring the latest agricultural research to local farmers."
Initially the local authorities saw Moon's investments as a way to boost the economy in impoverished cowboy country. Landowners, heavily in debt, were also keen to sell their mostly infertile pasture lands, the result of many years of slash-and-burn jungle clearance.
To appease local politicians Moon donated an ambulance to the local hospital in Jardim and provided funds for a small airport with one landing strip. Then, in what looked like a plan to boost his local following among soccer-crazed Brazilians, he set up his own professional football team.
Moon said he proposed to build a giant stadium in Jardim, where he would host national league games as well as perform mass weddings. But the plans - along with those to build hotels and foster an eco-tourist industry - have not materialised. And his moves to expand his territory across the border in Paraguay have only served to heighten the suspicions of Brazilian politicians.
"He just does not stop buying and yet his impact on the local economy has not been that positive," says Governor Santos. "The main question is: what does he intend to do with it all?"
Moon's recent acquisition of 500,000 acres of infertile flatland in Paraguay includes the river port of Puerto Casado, a town of 6,000 inhabitants. Most of the impoverished town's residents took part in protests against what they called a "Moonie invasion".
Once a thriving port, the town went bankrupt when the local logging industry turned non-viable in the 1980s.
Moon has vowed he will "industrialise, fertilise and commercialise" the poor riverside community. But the local Catholic Church accuses the sect leader of preying on the hopes of the poor and desperate to increase his following.
Local politicians say that dozens of luxury yachts have docked at the river port since the sect's arrival, claiming it is a sign that the Moonies intend to expel locals who fail to join their ranks. They are lobbying the central government in Asuncion to begin legal procedures to recover ownership of the town. But it is a battle that could take years, as the sale was made by an Argentine timber company which owns huge tracts of land in the region and built the town to house plantation workers in the 1950s.
Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities have vowed to investigate plans to build what they fear is "a sort of Moonlandia". However, it remains to be seen if they will be able to counter Moon's plans. He is, after all, the legal owner of much of this backwater corner of the continent.
The Moonies are not the only sect to have attempted to colonise a whole area. Others have tried - some with tragic results.
An enclosed agricultural commune in the Guyana jungle on the Venezuelan border, this cult was set up in 1973 by Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple. To the outside world, the sect appeared to be both multi-racial and egalitarian. But in November 1978, 913 of Jones's followers were ordered to kill themselves in a mass suicide, by drinking a lethal cyanide-laced grape punch, after Jones became convinced the commune was about to be raided by the CIA.
The Waco compound in Mount Carmel, Texas, was a religious commune for the Branch Davidians, set up by cult leader David Koresh. Wanted by the FBI on weapons charges, Koresh and more than 80 of his followers perished when the ranch went up in flames on 19 April 1993, after a 51-day FBI siege.
The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, led by "extra-terrestrial" Dwight York, set up a compound in the town of Eatonton, Georgia, in 1999, calling it their "Egypt of the West." Main features: two 12-metre-high pyramids, a 1.6km labyrinth, a multi-coloured obelisk and a giant statue of a sphinx, built despite protests from local building inspectors.
The Japanese Aum Supreme Truth cult, responsible for the 1995 lethal gas attacks on Tokyo subways, has some 1,600 members living in cult communes across the country. The sect, which raises funds from its computer software business, was reported to have around 28 practice halls and 150 accommodation facilities in 15 of Japan's 47 prefectures by the end of 2001.
The world's most famous sex commune, Friedrichshof, was set up in fields outside Vienna by Otto Muhl in the early 1970s, whereafter it gained a 600-strong following. Muhl was arrested and jailed in 1991 for under-age sex, but his vision of free love and economic communism still thrives, with many of the original members living on in the compound, which features an ornamental lake and a large block of flats. Muhl himself has since founded a new commune in Portugal.