Red flags as Indonesia eyes relocating its capital city to Borneo

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(photo: Prive. Doc)

IO, JAKARTA — Indonesia’s proposed new capital city on the island of Borneo will be built in just five years and without the need to raze any protected rainforest, a government official claims.

President Joko Widodo declared his intention to relocate the capital from the bustling, traffic-choked and polluted metropolis of Jakarta following his April 17 re-election. While the idea of moving the capital has been floated by previous presidents, Widodo says he is serious about implementing it.

Construction is expected to begin as soon as 2021, with a completion date of 2024, when Widodo’s second and last term in office ends, according to Bambang Brodjonegoro, the planning minister. But the government has still not said where the new capital will be located within Indonesian Borneo, a region known as Kalimantan and spanning 544,000 square kilometers — an area twice the size of New Zealand.

“The masterplan that we’ve been developing will hopefully become an ideal city, and most importantly, will be the standard for the development of big cities in metropolitan areas in Indonesia,” Bambang told reporters in Jakarta on Aug. 1.

The first phase of the city slated for completion in 2024 will span 20 square kilometers (8 square miles), nearly six times the size of New York City’s Central Park. By 2045, the new capital will be spread over 2,000 square kilometers of land — and no protected forests will have to be deforested for the new development, according to the planning minister.

That’s because the new capital will have at least 50 percent “open green space,” which includes recreational parks, a zoo, botanical garden, and sports complex “integrated into the natural landscape such as hilly areas and river systems,” Bambang said.

“The open green space won’t mean it’s cleared land, but an actual green area, and our concept is that of a forest city,” he said. “So as we build the new capital from zero, we will also restore the environment in Kalimantan. This is our strategy to ensure that the environment will not be disturbed as the development of new capital takes place.

“Our big commitment is that this won’t reduce the size of protection area forest in Indonesia,” he added.

Mining, logging, palm oil
Bambang has not shared with any outside environmental groups or experts what the concept of a “forest city” entails, or how it would be possible to create extensive urban space within a forested environment without disturbing the ecosystem.

One thing it should have over Jakarta, consistently rated as having some of the worst traffic anywhere in the world, is a more efficient and better-integrated public transportation system, according to Bambang. It will also promote eco-friendly vehicles, such as electric cars. “We must build a city that doesn’t rely heavily on using private vehicles,” he said.

The new city also promises to address a host of other present-day problems. Bambang said there would be drinkable tap water (not available at present in Indonesia); waste-to-energy facilities (the country is the second-biggest source of the plastic trash in the oceans, and is looking at burning some of that waste to generate electricity); and a sustainable drainage system (Jakarta’s sewers are notoriously ineffective, overflowing after even moderate rain, thanks to decades of indiscriminate littering).

“There won’t be electricity poles and cables above ground anymore,” Bambang added. “All households will be connected to the gas system. So there won’t be any more stories about using 3-kilogram LPG tanks, which get a lot of subsidies, cause many problems, and aren’t environmentally friendly.”

Kalimantan is home to 370,000 square kilometers (143,000 square miles) of tropical forest, about 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) of which is designated as protected areas, according to the national statistics agency. It’s the third most populated region in Indonesia, after the islands of Java and Sumatra (both of which are significantly smaller in size), and the government estimates the current population of about 16 million will increase by nearly a third to more than 20 million by 2035.

The region is home to indigenous communities whose lives revolve around intact forests, as well as to critically endangered species such as Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).

But industrial-scale forest clearing in recent decades — for mining, logging, and oil palm cultivation — has threatened the well-being and lives of both human and animal inhabitants of Kalimantan. The extensive draining of the island’s peat forests to make way for agriculture has also rendered the organic-rich soil highly flammable. In 2015 alone, nearly half of the deforestation recorded in Indonesia, or nearly 8,000 square kilometers (3,100 square miles) of forest loss, occurred in Kalimantan.

A recent study evaluating large-scale road-building projects in Kalimantan, ongoing and planned, shows that they will fragment the forests further, threatening the forest corridors vital to the wildlife. Such a transformation, the authors say, is “worrisome” because the region hosts one of the world’s largest tracts of native tropical forest, spanning an area a quarter the size of Alaska.

Indigenous lands at risk
Jakarta is one of the largest cities in the world, with a greater urban area home to some 25 million people. It lies on the northwestern coast of Java, the world’s most crowded island. The relocation would relieve the city of the dual burden of serving as both the commercial and political capital of Indonesia, one that has exacerbated issues ranging from constant traffic jams to frequent flooding and ongoing land subsidence.

President Widodo is expected to make an announcement about the location of the new capital later in August. He has teased several potential sites, with pictures on his social media accounts showing him visiting Bukit Suharto in East Kalimantan province, and Palangkaraya, Katingan and Gunung Mas in Central Kalimantan province.

The governor of Central Kalimantan, Sugianto Sabran, told journalists his government had already allocated large swaths of land in those areas for the new capital: 660 square kilometers (250 square miles) in Palangkaraya, 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) in Katingan, and 1,210 square kilometers in Gunung Mas.

For the host sites, the relocation promises to be lucrative: Bambang has estimated the cost of moving the capital at $32 billion, much of it raised from private investors and through public-private partnerships.

“We have predicted that [moving the capital] would boost national economic growth by 0.1 to 0.2 percent, but for Kalimantan, it would be much higher than that,” he said.

But the plan has sparked worries it will exacerbate environmental and social problems in Kalimantan, which has a long history of deadly conflicts between the indigenous population and migrants from other islands. Indigenous rights activists warn there could be a surge in land grabs as speculators look to cash in on demand for land.

“To date, the indigenous communities have not been approached for a discussion,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, or AMAN. “From our observation, it has only been the elite representatives of the society” who have been consulted about the relocation.

She added that some of the candidate sites, Palangkaraya and Gunung Mas, are home to large areas of customary lands. She called on the government to hold open discussions with indigenous communities to defuse the threat of conflicts arising as a result of large numbers of people flooding into the new capital.

“In 50 years’ time we don’t want the next generation to say that their elders were lied to by the government, when in actuality they just didn’t get the complete information,” Rukka said.

Bambang said the anticipated influx would be limited, given that the new capital would be the seat of government and legislative services, and would not replace Jakarta as Indonesia’s business and commercial hub.

“We will only be relocating government services, while others will remain in the old capital,” he said.

“One of the criteria for the location is a place where the people are open to outsiders, because there will be many civil servants relocating there,” Bambang said.

He also said the government had conducted anthropological assessments to pick the location, and that his office was working closely with the land ministry and environment ministry to ensure clarity about land ownership at the proposed site.

‘Disaster or success’
Laretna Trisnantari Adhisakti, an architecture lecturer at Gadjah Mada University, said the new capital must also uphold and protect the natural landscape in Kalimantan.

“The world is watching us because relocating the capital to Kalimantan means it can become either a disaster or a success: A disaster, because it could destroy further the lungs of the world; a success, because it could improve the lungs of the world,” she said.

Bernardus Djonoputro, the president of the Indonesian Association of Urban and Regional Planners, said the design of the new capital must also adapt to the new milieu, with its high rainfall and extreme humidity.

“One of the consequences of such a forest-based concept is that the buildings cannot be tall,” he said. “But if the Government could truly create a city that is forest-based, it would a huge contribution to global city planning.”

Sibarani Sofian, the secretary general of the Association of Indonesian City Planning Experts, said the new development must also be in line with Indonesia’s global commitment to reduce carbon emission by 30 percent by 2030.

“The challenge is to resolve bigger problems, such as the impacts of mining in Kalimantan, or expanding the size of forest area there, instead of bringing the problems of Jakarta to a new place,” he said.

Bambang said that the government would enforce strict compliance with regulations to tackle environmental and social damage, and ensure the new capital was sustainable.

“There mustn’t be any changes driven by the private sector to zoning plans,” he said, in reference to speculators seeking to repeal protected-area status for forests in order to snap up the land. “I’m not necessarily anti-developer, but there are so many cases where people feel that a city is too driven by developers instead of the authorities.”

Rukka, the indigenous rights advocate, said the key was to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities in whichever area was chosen as the location of the new capital.

“The government must lay out to these communities the positive and negative consequences of the relocation,” she said. (Basten Gokkon (Mongabay))