Indonesia unveils construction site of new capital city. Will it be a ‘massive ecological disaster’?

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is sinking.

Known for its high pollution, this city on the island of Java is struggling to survive amid environmental, overpopulation and infrastructure challenges. It is also prone to earthquakes.

To address the problem, the Indonesian government is moving Indonesia’s capital to the island of Borneo. But not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea.

Why is Indonesia moving its capital city?

Jakarta is one of the world’s most overpopulated cities. Its greater metropolitan area is home to more than 30 million residents.

The sprawling megapolis sinks about six centimetres a year due to the excessive extraction of groundwater for its residents, according to a 2021 study by Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology. This makes it one of the fastest sinking cities on Earth.

The phenomenon has been exacerbated by the rising Java Sea due to climate change. 

A quarter of the capital’s area will be completely submerged by 2050 if urgent measures aren’t taken, the National Research and Innovation Agency said.

Researchers also believe water supplies may dry up for many in Jakarta and wider Java if Indonesia does not relieve pressure on resources.

“Jakarta and Java Island are heading towards a clean water crisis. We projected the crisis might happen in 2050,” earth scientist Andreas said, blaming rapid population and industrial growth.

“When the population explodes, the poor sanitation will get worse, pollutants will contaminate the rivers and shallow groundwater, rendering them unusable,” he added.

Pollution from Jakarta’s traffic-choked roads and the absence of a rubbish collection system – forcing many to burn their trash – has also produced air quality that at times rivals New Delhi and Beijing.

The city’s streets are so clogged that it is estimated congestion costs the economy €4.3 billion a year.

With more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is the largest archipelagic nation on earth. But 56 per cent of its population and most of its economy are concentrated in Jakarta and the wider Java Island, which is home to more than half of the country’s 270 million people.

By comparison, East Kalimantan province – where the new capital Nusantara (an old Javanese term meaning ‘archipelago’) is being built – has fewer than four million people.

Another reason for the capital relocation cited by the government is disaster mitigation.

According to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, Jakarta is surrounded by active fault lines, making it perilously vulnerable to earthquakes. Borneo, on the other hand, has the lowest possibility of earthquakes.

Where will Indonesia’s new capital be?

Located in eastern Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, Nusantara is set to replace Jakarta as Indonesia’s political centre by summer 2024.

It will sprawl across 256,000 hectares in East Kalimantan province on the Indonesian part of Borneo, an island the country shares with Malaysia and Brunei.

Government buildings and housing need to be constructed from scratch. Initial estimates were that over 1.5 million civil servants would be relocated to the city, though ministries and government agencies are still working to finalise that number.

Will the city really be ‘sustainable’?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pitched a utopian vision of a ‘green’ city four times the size of Jakarta where residents would commute on electric buses.

Officials say the new metropolis will be a “sustainable forest city” that puts the environment at the heart of the development. 

Plans for the new capital – about twice the size of New York City and four times that of Jakarta – are ambitious. Officials tout the creation of a futuristic green city centred on forest, parks and food production that utilises renewable energy resources, ‘smart’ waste management and green buildings.

Digital renderings shared by the government show a city surrounded by forest, with people walking on tree-lined sidewalks. Buildings with plant-covered rooftops are surrounded by walking paths, ponds, clean creeks and lush forest.

The government has said it’s working to be considerate of the environment. Signs of a more-conscious approach to construction are visible: patches of trees remain fenced-off to protect them from machinery, a plant nursery has already started for the replanting process officials promise and industrial forest surrounds the site.

They say they aim for the city to be carbon-neutral by 2045 and for 65 per cent of it to be reforested.

But with construction set to ramp up this year, environmentalists have cause for concern.

What impact could Nusantara have on the environment?

Two hours’ drive from the island’s Balikpapan city, the sweeping green expanse of Nusantara’s ‘Point Zero’ reveals the scale of the new capital’s potential impact on this biodiverse area.

The island that Indonesians call the “lungs of the world” is home to long-nosed monkeys, clouded leopards, pig-tailed macaques, flying fox-bats and the smallest rhinos on the planet.

A car cruises on a dirt road at the construction site of the new capital city in Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, Wednesday, 8 March 8 2023.AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

By 2045, the Indonesian government says Nusantara will host 1.9 million residents. That is more than twice Balikpapan’s population, importing a wave of human and industrial activity into the heart of Borneo.

Environmentalists warn building a capital city in this prehistoric location would accelerate deforestation in one of the world’s largest and oldest stretches of tropical rainforest, threatening the habitat of endangered species. 

Indigenous communities who have been living in the area for generations could also be displaced.

“It’s going to be a massive ecological disaster,” Uli Arta Siagian, forest campaigner for environmental group Walhi, told AFP.

The ground zero of the construction site of the new capital city in Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, Wednesday, 8 March 2023.AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Forest Watch Indonesia, an Indonesian nongovernmental organisation that monitors forestry issues, warned in a November 2022 report that most of the forested areas in the new capital are “production forests”. This means permits could be granted for forestry and extractive activities that would lead to further deforestation.

Until now there has been no certainty regarding the protection status of the remaining natural forests in the new capital city area, the report said.

Some animals are already suffering due to the capital’s relocation

Indonesia also has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation linked to mining, farming and logging, and is accused of allowing firms to operate in Borneo with little oversight.

Life is already changing for the worse for some of the area’s animal inhabitants.

At an orangutan sanctuary on land marked for Nusantara’s future expansion, illegal encroachments have intensified since the capital’s location was announced.

An orangutan at BOSF’s (Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) Samboja Lestari Orangutan Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, near the site of the country’s new capital city.AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Around 40 per cent of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF)-run sanctuary’s 1,800-hectare reforested area has been damaged in recent years. An illicit mine has even been built there, according to chief executive Jamartin Sihite.

What will happen to the people who live in Borneo?

Nusantara could also displace generations-old Indigenous communities.

Sibukdin, a local Indigenous Balik tribe leader, fears the development will drive away his people. Like other Indigenous groups in Borneo, thousands of Balik tribe members rely on the forest to meet their daily needs.

“The land and the farms are inherited from our ancestors. The land is the biggest asset of our tribe,” Sikbukdin explains.

“For us, the farm is the source of life. If our land is taken away, how could we farm? How could we live?”

More than 90 per cent of the forest his community uses for hunting and foraging has already been lost to commercial activity since the 1970s.

At least five villages with more than 100 Indigenous Balik people are relocating because of the construction, with more villages expected to be uprooted as the building site expands.

The government said the new capital has received support from local community leaders, and has provided compensation to people whose land is being used for the city.

But Sibukdin says community members felt compelled to take the money they were offered by the government without knowing how compensation is calculated or if it was fair.

While officials have vowed to respect Indigenous rights and compensate those affected by Nusantara, provincial officials said they would verify all land claims and only accept ownership proof.

Sibukdin says not all Balik tribe areas have been formally recognised.

When will Indonesia’s new capital city be inaugurated?

Basuki Hadimuljono, Indonesia’s minister for public works and housing, said in February that the city’s infrastructure is 14 per cent completed.

Some 7,000 construction workers are clearing, plowing and building the first phases of the site. Worker dormitories, basic roads and a helipad are already being used. Construction of key buildings – such as the presidential palace – is expected to be completed by summer 2024.

The city is expected to be inaugurated on 17 August 2024 to coincide with Indonesia’s Independence Day. 

New capital authorities said that the final stages of the city, however, likely won’t be completed until 2045, marking the nation’s hundredth anniversary.

Watch the video above to learn more.

Video editor • Hannah Brown


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