Indonesia is still moving its capital to Nusantara despite rising public opposition

President Joko Widodo alongside the Governor of East Kalimantan Isran Noor visiting the location of Nusantara. Photo by BPMI President's Secretariat/Muchlis Jr - President of the Republic of Indonesia. Source: Wikipedia

President Joko Widodo alongside the Governor of East Kalimantan Isran Noor visiting the location of Nusantara. Photo by BPMI President's Secretariat/Muchlis Jr – President of the Republic of Indonesia. Source: Wikipedia via CC0

After a temporary pause due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Indonesia is continuing its long-term plan of moving its capital from Jakarta to a new location in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, also known as the IKN project. In a nearly unprecedented move, the Indonesian government is creating the city entirely from scratch and has cleared thousands of hectares of forests, fields, and grasslands to make way for the new city, which will be dubbed Nusantara. The first phase of development is scheduled to be completed by 2024.

The relocation is intended to ease demographic pressures on the capital city Jakarta, a city that has been plagued by issues of traffic congestion, overcrowding, and pollution.

Jakarta is also facing immense climate pressures from rising sea levels, as 40 percent of the city is situated below sea level. To exacerbate the issue, the city is also sinking at a rate of 11 inches per year in some areas due to the overuse of underground aquifers below the city. These factors have combined to produce disastrous annual floods which have displaced thousands of Jakartans and forced people to abandon some coastal villages. As the climate crisis worsens, the situation is expected to get even more tenuous for coastal residents.

The idea of ​​moving to the capital city is not new. President Soekarno proposed moving the capital to Palangkaraya — a city in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago — in 1957. However, Soekarno's idea was never implemented. Then, during the Soeharto administration in the 1990s, a proposal was made to move the capital to Jonggol. Again, this plan did not materialize. During the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–2014), the proposal was revived as a solution to traffic jams and floods in Jakarta. But it wasn't until April 29, 2019, that President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) finally took the plunge and approved a plan to move the central government out of Java.

The new capital covers a land area of ​​approximately 256,142 hectares and a water area of about ​​68,189 hectares.

Jokowi hopes the new capital will be something of a utopia — a green, “smart city” with a robust workforce and cutting-edge technology. He shared his vision for the capital:

Energy sources in the new Indonesian capital will come from renewable energy. For transportation, the government will develop electric-based autonomous vehicle technology. Pedestrians and cyclists will appreciate it most. The distance to everywhere can be in ten minutes.

The Head of the Nusantara Capital Authority, Bambang Susantono, echoed Jokowi's sentiments, adding that the new city could be a boon for Indonesian society:

Building a city is not only about building its physical body but mainly about social cohesion, the interaction between its citizens, how the city becomes a humanist, liveable city. We are pleased for all society to support that the Capital of the Nusantara becomes an inclusive, green city, and sustainable, built for all, a city for all.

Indigenous and civil society opposition

The move has drawn much criticism from activist groups and Indigenous activists who say the IKN project is just another instance of the government taking Indigenous lands. The Kalimantan region had been plagued by land-theft problems in the past, as the government had gifted land owned by Indigenous people and farmers to mining and plantation companies without community consent.

Deputy Secretary General of Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), a local civil society organization, Erasmus Cahyadi said, “Long before the discourse of IKN, the location of IKN development was not empty land or ownerless land, but land owned and controlled by Indigenous Peoples and farmers. But, later, the lands were managed by mining and plantation companies.”

According to the 2021 AMAN Year-End Notes, 21 indigenous communities inhabit the IKN development area. AMAN estimates that at least 20,000 indigenous people will be displaced due to the IKN project. Cahyadi echoed what many local residents are thinking about the project: “IKN development is only to fulfill the ambitions of business interests and political imagery.”

Experts estimate that the construction of IKN could also exacerbate local conflicts and undermine the region's agrarian reform programs. The Head of Policy Advocacy for the Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA), Roni Septian, noted that during the last five years, 30 agrarian conflicts in an area of 64,707 hectares were due to land disputes in East Kalimantan. Given the vast amount of people soon to be displaced amid the IKN development, these disputes are expected to increase.

Political and environmental concerns

The new capital plan has drawn popular opposition as well. The chairman of the opposition party, Prosperous Justice (PKS), Mardani Ali Sera, suggested that the Jokowi administration should focus on human resource development in their remaining two years of governing.

The most important thing is not building a new State Capital but building intellectual centers, centers for improving human resources, the best universities, and training centers.

An online petition by the Narasi Institute urges the government to stop the plan to relocate the state capital to Kalimantan. The statement asserted that the government should focus on more urgent concerns, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and emerging economic crisis. As of October 26, 2022, the petition has garnered 35,971 signatures.

Additionally, nineteen civil society organizations that are members of the National Committee for Agrarian Reform (KNPA) publically opposed the development of the new state capital in East Kalimantan. Forest and Plantation Campaign Manager from the Forum for the Environment (WALHI) Uli Artha Siagian pointed out that the location of IKN is a strategic water source for the surrounding communities. He warned that the construction of the IKN could cut off this water supply and destroy the mangrove ecosystem in Balikpapan Bay, covering an area of 2,603.41 hectares. In addition, 14 watersheds will be affected by construction, which could trigger ecological disasters in the future.

There could be other environmental consequences as well. Member of Commission IV House of Representative Johan Rosihan emphasized that based on the results of a strategic environmental study conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, there were three regions within the IKN with high conservation value — meaning they contain essential or endemic ecosystems, flora, and fauna that are important to protect. “I question the mitigation steps and adaptation concepts that the government will make to areas with high conservation values with the existence of this IKN project,” said Rosihan.

Aside from the potential environmental, ethical, and land-use issues, some have also questioned how the USD 34 billion project will be funded.

Despite the local opposition, construction is proceeding as planned. Over the next two years, the plan includes the building of a new presidential palace, the States Council building, and housing for 500,000 residents intended for civil servants. The president hopes to celebrate the 79th Indonesian Independence Day at IKN on August 17, 2024.

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