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Skepticism at Indonesia's plan to relocate its capital

Environmentalists fear proposed location in Borneo will be blighted by same traffic jams and pollution as Jakarta

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Skepticism at Indonesia's plan to relocate its capital

A coal mine owned by PT Kaltim Prima in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The government intends to relocate Indonesia’s capital to the province. (Photo supplied)

After 74 years of independence, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has declared a plan to move the national capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Widodo’s announcement is a clear signal that the government is committed to developing areas outside the island of Java, which has been the center of development in recent decades. Java is also overpopulated — it contains 140 million people, more than half the national population of 260 million.

Widodo acknowledged that paying too much attention to developing Java, particularly Jakarta, had created huge inequality.

“The economic disparity between Java and other regions continues to increase, even though since 2001 regional autonomy has been carried out,” he said Aug. 28.

With its population reaching 11 million and a high density of up to 1,500 people per square kilometer, Jakarta has experienced major problems in terms of pollution, congestion and land subsidence.

“Traffic jams are already severe, while air and water pollution must also be addressed immediately,” he said.

Widodo said, the targeted area, which straddles North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kertanegara districts in East Kalimantan province, is geographically safe from environmental risks.

The funds needed to relocate the capital had been estimated at US$32.9 billion, he said, but only 19 percent would come from the state budget and the rest from the private sector.

Basuki Hadimuljono, Public Works and Housing Minister said if all the legislative procedures went well, development of infrastructure — roads, dams, water supply, government buildings etc. — would begin next year and the actual relocation would be completed in 2023 or 2024.

Under the shadow of deforestation

Despite government claims to be focusing on an eco-friendly “forest city” style of city development, environmentalists and advocates of indigenous peoples are skeptical.

They said Kalimantan, an area full of vast forests, had already been exploited by extractive industries, especially palm oil.

Merah Johansyah, from Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), said: “The plan takes no account of the environmental problems, which should be the government’s main concern.”

Like Jakarta, he said, which faces air and water pollution, Kalimantan was already at grave risk due to mining and oil palm plantations, which threaten the lives of wildlife as well as the future of local communities.

Data from Jatam shows that 1,190 mining permits have been issued, covering 5.2 million hectares in East Kalimantan province, equal to 45 percent of its 12.9 million hectares total area.

Zenzi Suhadi, from Friends of the Earth, urged Widodo to first settle Jakarta’s air pollution problem before switching his attention to relocating the capital. The president and his Jakarta-based administration was recently sued by the public over this very issue.

According to the World Health Organization, Jakarta’s level of air pollution since 2016 has been around PM2.5, exceeding safety standards.

Rukka Sambolinggi, secretary-general of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, said Widodo’s motivation for moving the capital to Kalimantan due to its low risk in terms of environmental disasters was misguided.

“East Kalimantan is not free from disasters such as flooding, as a result of the deforestation [that has already taken place],” she said.

Sambolinggi also feared that the proposed relocation could bring more land issues to the Dayak community, the biggest indigenous group in Kalimantan. The uncontrolled granting of permits to mining and palm oil companies had often victimized indigenous peoples, including the Dayak tribe, she said. 

'Must involve tribal people'

Priest and activist Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a member of the presidential task force involved in promoting national unity, tried to be optimistic about the chances of the relocation of the capital resulting in equitable development.

However, he stressed that the government needed to pay attention to environmental issues and the concerns of tribal communities to ensure their survival amid an influx of people from outside their land.

“It is equally important to ensure that indigenous people are at the center of the process,” he told ucanews.com.

Father Susetyo also called on the government to pay attention to other regions, which are still underdeveloped.

In particular he mentioned eastern Indonesia, where Christian-majority areas — Papua, West Papua and East Nusa Tenggara — have ranked as the lowest of Indonesia’s 34 provinces in terms of human development in recent decades.

“I hope that moving the capital outside Java is also a symbol of the government’s intense desire to create equality in other regions,” he said.

Jacobus Kumis, a spokesperson for the National Dayak Indigenous Peoples group, said they would support the plan “as long as the government respects our rights.”

“We hope the government hears our aspirations during the process so that we can feel the benefits of this historic plan,” he said.

“What we want is a fair arrangement for the future of our living space, so that the problems that have occurred in Jakarta will not happen on our land.”

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