Indonesia's planned new capital sparks environmental concerns


By AGENCY
  • Living
  • Thursday, 16 Feb 2023

Locals visit the area that is known as Nusantara Ground Zero, where the capital is to be built. Photos: Walhi/dpa

The Indonesian government has painted the country’s new capital, currently being built in the jungles of Borneo, as an urban utopia where nature meets state-of-the art technology.

Some activists doubt this, calling it an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

East Kalimantan province, where the new city is to be built, has suffered ecological degradation since the 1980s due to deforestation, mining operations and palm oil plantations, says Uli Artha Siagian, a forest campaigner for Indonesia’s leading environmental group Walhi.

“Ecological disasters are becoming more frequent in East Kalimantan. Floods and landslides are often inevitable after an hour of rain,” Siagian said.

Meanwhile, more than 160 forest concessions have been issued to businesses in Penajam Paser Utara and Kutai Kartanegara, the districts where Nusantara is being constructed, she said.

Many of those who received the rights to exploit forests were business people with ties to then-dictator Suharto, who was ousted in 1998.

A stone marks the site of Indonesia's future capital.A stone marks the site of Indonesia's future capital.

“So these areas are not only experiencing an ecological crisis, but also a space crisis,” Siagian added.

Last year, the Indonesian parliament passed a bill on the new national capital, which is to cover a total of 256,000ha.

The bill came nearly three years after President Joko Widodo announced plans to build a whole new capital city.

The government said Jakarta was no longer viable as the country's administrative hub due to frequent flooding, perennial traffic jams and poor air quality.

In addition, the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater and rising sea levels mean Jakarta is gradually sinking into the sea.

The government insists that the new capital will be a “smart and green city” that is environmentally sustainable and features state-of-the-art technologies. Only electric cars will be allowed on its brand-new roads, they say.

Office and living spaces in Jakarta at night. The government has said that Jakarta was no longer viable as the country's administrative hub due to frequent flooding, perennial traffic jams and poor air quality. Photo: Soeren Stache/dpaOffice and living spaces in Jakarta at night. The government has said that Jakarta was no longer viable as the country's administrative hub due to frequent flooding, perennial traffic jams and poor air quality. Photo: Soeren Stache/dpa

Widodo says the low risk of disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are among the considerations for the move to Borneo.

The cost of the move to the capital is estimated at more than US$32bil (RM140bil).

Widodo had initially said the first officials were scheduled to move into their new offices as early as 2024 – the last year of his second and final term in office.

But that is unlikely as construction is still in the early stages, with the government struggling to attract international investments for the project. Ari Rompas, a Greenpeace activist, says mass migration of people to the new capital will further strain its resources.

“We foresee further destruction of remaining forest areas”, including the mangrove forest in the Balikpapan Bay, he said.

“There will be more extractive industrial activities and endangered species will be further threatened.”

The area is home to endangered species such as orangutans and long-nosed monkeys, along with Bornean pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and hornbills, a family of birds.

By 2045, the area where the future seat of government will be built would be home to 1.9 million – about 10 times the current population, according to a projection made by the National Development Planning Agency.

The population of East Kalimantan is projected to grow to 11 million, from 3.7 million today, the agency says.

A senior presidential advisor, Rawanda Wandy Tuturoong, said 70% of the new capital will be green space.

“This city will ensure that forests are protected,” he said.

“The new national capital will be a smart forest city and that will be better than leaving the place undeveloped,” he added.

Environmental concerns aside, locals fear the loss of their traditional lands.

“My land has been taken by the government even though I have the title,” said Yati Dahlia, a 32-year-old member of the Paser tribe.

“Some residents have received payments, but I haven’t. I don’t know how much the compensation will be,” she said. “I have been losing sleep and under pressure.” – dpa

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