‘Useless for us’: new Indonesian capital excludes indigenous, poor

New capital city will uproot thousands of indigenous people, and offers little incentive for poorer residents in Jakarta to move.

Slums in Jakarta, Indonesia
Slums in Jakarta, Indonesia, which plans to relocate its capital to East Kalimantan in Borneo island. February 4, 2022. Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/ David Andreas

Maesaroh has sold chicken satay with rice from her stall on a busy Jakarta street close to government offices for about 13 years, serving more than 50 customers a day until the coronavirus pandemic slowed business to a trickle.

Now, she faces an even bigger threat: the relocation of Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to a site on Borneo island, which would devastate small businesses like Maesaroh’s that depend on government offices and other firms in Jakarta.

“I moved to Jakarta because it’s a big city and there are more opportunities to make money here that I can also send to my family,” said Maesaroh, 35, who goes by one name, and supports her family on Madura island in East Java province.

“If the government officials all move to Kalimantan, what should I do? What will happen to my business? I will have to give up, as I have no desire to relocate to Kalimantan,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as she prepared an order.

The Indonesian parliament last month approved a bill to relocate the Indonesian capital to a site deep within the jungle of East Kalimantan, an idea the country’s leaders have been contemplating for years for more equitable growth in the nation.

Why do we need to relocate? If we are concerned about climate-change impacts, then we should not be building a new city by cutting down forests and building several new roads and airports which will only increase emissions.

Elisa Sutanudjaja, co-founder and executive director, Rujak Center for Urban Studies 

The new state capital law provides a legal framework for President Joko Widodo’s ambitious $32 billion project, and stipulates how the capital - named Nusantara, a Javanese term for the Indonesian archipelago - will be funded and governed.

Government officials have said the new capital will promote sustainable growth beyond Java island, and ease pressure on Jakarta, a megacity of 10 million people that suffers from chronic congestion, frequent floods and deadly air pollution.

But low-income residents in Jakarta fear losing their livelihoods, while indigenous people in Borneo say they have not been consulted, and that they will be uprooted from their ancestral lands as forests are cleared for the new capital.

“Indigenous people there have already been facing negligence and denial of their rights, and now they will be kicked off their lands,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

“They have not been consulted, they have not given their informed consent, and the project will devastate their land and the environment. It’s going to be a major catastrophe for the indigenous people,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Most vulnerable 

Countries from Brazil to Myanmar have built new capital cities for reasons ranging from overcrowding to better security and a desire to be in a more central location.

Several of these projects have been mired in controversy because of faulty planning or the lack of amenities such as social housing for poorer residents.

Jakarta was named the world’s most environmentally vulnerable metropolitan last year by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, as it faces the threats of pollution, earthquakes and flooding, even as it is slowly sinking.

Yet building a new capital is not the solution, and may even exacerbate some of these issues, said Elisa Sutanudjaja, co-founder and executive director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta.

“Why do we need to relocate? If we are concerned about climate-change impacts, then we should not be building a new city by cutting down forests and building several new roads and airports which will only increase emissions,” she said.

“Instead, we should be investing in our existing cities to improve their infrastructure and make them more climate resilient and liveable,” she added.

Government officials have said investments in Jakarta will continue, and that the city will even benefit from the relocation of the capital.

“President Jokowi is relocating the capital for good reasons, such as equitable development,” said Ahmad Riza Patria, Jakarta’s vice governor, referring to Widodo by his popular name.

“Moreover, Jakarta is still focused on development, and problems such as congestion and flooding and air pollution will actually reduce from the relocation, so there are some positive impacts for Jakarta also,” he added.

Long struggle

Across the Indonesian archipelago, indigenous and rural communities have been fighting to reclaim their ancestral lands from mining and logging concessions, following a historic 2013 court ruling to lift state control of customary forests.

Widodo had vowed to return 12.7 million hectares (31 million acres) of such land to indigenous people, but progress has been slow with conflicting claims and multiple maps, land rights activists say.

More than 20 communities comprising thousands of indigenous people risk being uprooted from their land to make way for Nusantara, according to AMAN, which has mapped their lands.

Environmentalists have also warned that the new capital could damage ecosystems in the region, where mining and oil palm plantations already threaten rainforests that are home to Borneo’s endangered species, including orangutans.

Government authorities have said concerns of indigenous people and the environment will be taken into account, without giving details.

More than 250,000 hectares have been set aside for the project, and the new capital is envisioned as a low-carbon “super hub” that will support the pharmaceutical, health and technology sectors.

The government has said the land needed to build the capital was settled, and that the initial relocation will start from between 2022 and 2024.

But Kusdriyana, a 39-year-old housewife who has always lived in Jakarta, will not be among those moving to Nusantara.

Kusdriyana, who has done some odd jobs to supplement her husband’s irregular income from a minibus operator, lives with her family of 10 in a crowded eastern Jakarta neighbourhood that often floods during the monsoon.

“Years ago, when I worked in a shopping mall, I would get home late because of the heavy traffic congestion. So I prefer to do some small jobs where I can work in the house,” said Kusdriyana, who goes by one name.

“My husband and I only have a ninth-grade education. We have no chance of getting a job in the new capital - so it would be useless for us to move there,” she said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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