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Indonesia’s new capital will be an environmental disaster – and yet another protected rainforest will be destroyed

The government brands the new capital as a sustainable project, despite parts of the city taking up protected space. But it’ll just repeat mistakes made in Jakarta unless it drastically changes its approach

Hans Nicholas Jong
Tuesday 03 September 2019 16:44 BST
A view of a land as peatland forest is cleared by burning for a palm oil plantation at a company's grounds on 1 November 2015 in the outskirts of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia
A view of a land as peatland forest is cleared by burning for a palm oil plantation at a company's grounds on 1 November 2015 in the outskirts of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Building a new capital city from scratch in a jungle-covered area with little to no infrastructure and moving nearly 1 million civil servants to the city within 5 years is definitely a mammoth and expensive undertaking.

And yet, it’s what the government of Indonesia has decided to do. President Joko Widodo recently announced that the country’s capital will be relocated from Jakarta to a yet-to-be-built city in the east of Borneo island, more than 1,000km away.

The Indonesian government reasoned that the country’s capital needed to be moved as the current capital, Jakarta, is rapidly sinking and is suffering from chronic traffic jams and choking air pollution.

Furthermore, the government also justified its decision by arguing that the relocation will open up new opportunities to develop the economy of the Indonesian part of Borneo island, called Kalimantan, and shift away the focus of the development from Java island. Java has been the economic and political center of Indonesia for decades, accounting for 65 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the challenges that come from designing new capital cities from scratch, more than 30 other countries have succeeded in relocating their capital cities to newly built ones. And thus, relocating the capital of Indonesia might not be that far fetched of an idea.

The government said there’s enough land available for the new capital, which will occupy 180,000 hectares of areas, and that it’s confident that it would be able to secure the 466 trillion rupiah ($33bn) needed for the relocation.

Construction is expected to begin as early as 2021, pending approval by the parliament, and last until 2024, when Widodo’s second and last term in office ends.

Moving the capital will give a second chance for the government to start from scratch. A lack of proper urban planning and rapid urbanization have made Jakarta inhospitable. It is currently one of the fastest sinking cities in the world as households, mega malls and luxury hotels drain the crowded city’s aquifers resulting in the ground caving in.

Jakarta is currently sinking by up to 6.7 inches per year and by 2050, 95 percent of North Jakarta will be submerged.

Will the government learn from its past mistakes in mismanaging Jakarta? Or will it repeat the same mistakes in the new yet-to-be-named capital city?

At first, it looks like the government is hell-bent on not repeating the same mistakes by touting that the infrastructure of the new capital city will be developed in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way.

The government brands the new capital as a “smart and forest city”. Various officials have also repeatedly reassured that the construction of the new city will not harm the environment, despite the fact that parts of the city will be located in a protected forest area.

Instead, the government promised that the protected forest area would be reforested and that the unique ecosystems of East Kalimantan will be protected.

The government is currently conducting a strategic environmental study, expected to be finished in November, to make sure that the construction of the new city doesn’t entail the destruction of rainforests.

But experts have pointed out that there are still many questions that needed to be answered by the government for the construction of the new capital city to be truly considered “green”.

For instance, could deforestation be truly avoided when building the new capital city? A recent study evaluating ongoing and planned large-scale road-building projects in the Indonesian part of Borneo island shows that they will lead to further fragmentation of forests resulting in a drastic reduction of forest habitat accessible to wildlife, including critically endangered species such as Bornean orangutans.

That study hasn’t taken into account the capital relocation project and thus it’s possible that the projected forest fragmentation is even greater with more roads planned in the future to support the new capital city. The government, however, hasn’t shared details on how the project will avoid deforestation.

An analysis by Indonesian NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) shows that there are still around 1,370 hectares of intact natural forests in the location of the new capital city.

And while the government says it will reforest the areas surrounding the new capital city, analysis shows that the new capital is surrounded by mining, palm oil and logging concessions.

Therefore, the government might have to revoke these concession permits before it’s able to start replanting the deforested areas, something which might be difficult to do.

Another question is how the government would source the material needed to construct the new capital.

Hendro Sangkoyo, the co-founder of the School of Democratic Economics research institute, said it’s very likely that the construction will use cement sourced from the nearby 3.5 million-hectare limestone landscape called Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst in East Kutai regency, roughly 400km away from the location of the new capital city. Industrial companies are poised to mine the region’s limestone, the main raw material for making cement.

“With the presence of the new capital city, it makes sense to exploit cement [from the karst] because the supply is abundant and the cost will be the lowest because that’s the nearest source [of cement],” he said.

The karst is once nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the findings of prehistoric rock art and ancient human vestiges that date back 35,000 years in the area. The region is also home to many rare limestone-restricted species, such as blind freshwater fish, bats, black-and-white-nest swiftlets, while serving as a refuge for orangutans fleeing forest fires during the dry season.

The construction of the new capital could put more pressure to the already-fragile limestone landscape.

It also remains unclear how the government would get the electricity to power the construction of the capital and the city itself once an estimated 1.5 million people started living there in 2024.

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At present, Kalimantan relies heavily on fossil fuels including diesel and coal. The eastern part of Kalimantan is the country’s coal and oil hubs and Kutai Kartanegara, in which the new capital will sit, is Indonesia’s biggest coal producer.

“There’s no way renewable energy is ready [to power the construction of the capital city],” Hendro said. “So it’s likely that coal will be dug up again.”

It’s clear that these questions needed to be answered soon. However, two months – the amount of time the government said would be needed to ensure that the relocation of the capital adheres to a sustainable and environmentally friendly development model – might not be enough for the government to answer these questions.

And these questions could also be easily overlooked if the relocation process, including its planning and environmental impact assessment, isn't opened for public participation and monitoring.

Without meticulous planning and public participation, the new capital city might suffer from the same fate as Jakarta and the question of whether Indonesia needs to relocate its capital city again might reappear in the coming decades.

* A previous version of this article said the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst​ was 105,000 hectares. It has since been changed to the correct figure of 3.5 million hectares

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