The human cost of Indonesia’s new capital

Two key factors prompted the Indonesian government to relocate the country’s capital to Kalimantan in Borneo.

The first is to promote an equitable distribution of wealth between the privileged western and disadvantaged eastern parts of Indonesia.

Wide social and economic gaps were the result of decades of centralized governance that some called Javacentrism. This is to give priority to the development of the island of Java where the current capital Jakarta is located and which is home to 56% of the Indonesian population.

Although the gap began to close with the introduction of decentralization soon after the fall of the Suharto regime, a ‘revolutionary path’ was still needed – and the relocation of the capital was seen as part of this.

The second reason is the hellish situation of Jakarta, which is overcrowded, badly polluted, heavily congested and sinking. Experts believe that the north coast of Jakarta will be submerged by 2050 or even earlier.

Various studies, including one by the Indonesian Association of Urban and Regional Planners, concluded that Jakarta was becoming uninhabitable due to poor sanitary conditions and lack of clean water and access to public transport. Air quality in Jakarta is considered by many to be the worst in the world.

However, the euphoria of having a new capital may not be felt by the indigenous people of East Kalimantan where it will be built.

Studies have also shown that Jakarta is not friendly to religious freedom and has been ranked among the most intolerant cities in Indonesia – not an ideal situation for the capital of a supposedly secular country.

So when President Joko Widodo announced the resettlement plan in 2019, the public greeted enthusiastically. The passage of the new Capital Act into law in January provided a stronger legal basis for an accelerated movement.

However, the euphoria of having a new capital may not be felt by the indigenous people of East Kalimantan where it will be built.

The US$32 billion project covers approximately 256,000 hectares which will include dams, power stations and other infrastructure such as military bases. It will cover North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara districts.

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The government claims it will be environmentally friendly, but the fear is what will happen to the tens of thousands of natives. Activists point to the inevitable loss of their livelihoods, as many people in the targeted lands are subsistence farmers.

The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago estimates that more than 20,000 indigenous people risk being expelled to pave the way for the new capital named Nusantara.

The group represents at least 2,370 indigenous communities, about 30 percent of which live in Kalimantan, like the districts where Nusantara will be built.

These communities were not fully involved in the pre-construction negotiations. They fear being expropriated from their ancestral lands and being branded as criminals if they defend their rights.

Environmentalists suspected something fishy with the rapid deliberation of the new capital bill last month, without adequate consultation with locals or a feasibility study. They believed there were secret agreements between the government and the companies that the concessions already had where Nusantara will be located.

It was not an unsubstantiated assertion. They discovered that there are hundreds of mining concessions and plantations covering 180,000 hectares in the area reserved for the future city. More than 90 mining sites have also been discovered there.

Environmentalists suspected some sort of compromise because the companies wouldn’t just walk away without compensation.

The government is not going to spend more money to reimburse them. Instead, it will grant land grants nearby. This will come at the expense of indigenous peoples and the scope threatens to extend beyond the new capital region.

The project, if not managed properly from the start, will aggravate Kalimantan’s ecosystem which has already been damaged by mining and plantations. It would also contradict his noble intention to eliminate geographical inequalities.

Government must be different from abusive corporations when dealing with Indigenous communities

Indigenous communities are fragile, powerless and can easily be pushed aside. They are often ignored and seen as enemies by companies. Many have also fallen victim to unfair regulations.

Construction of the new megacity will be done in stages and is expected to be completed by the time Indonesia celebrates 100 years of independence in 2045.

President Widodo aims to move to the new presidential palace in 2024. The hope is that the next president to be elected that year will be inaugurated there.

Government must be different from abusive corporations when dealing with Indigenous communities. It must ensure the rights of the people affected by the city project before the start of construction. It’s not just about compensating them for their land. The new city should also benefit indigenous communities.

Paying more attention to local people and empowering them is crucial. Moving the capital will also mean moving around 1.5 million civil servants and their families to the new site.

This can create new problems. On the one hand, their presence can stimulate the local economy. However, at the same time, social and economic gaps also arise.

Everyone expects to see the new capital embody the new identity of Indonesia. Therefore, the government must ensure that local communities are empowered to maximize their potential. Otherwise, moving the capital will only replicate Jakarta’s existing problems.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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