Timber trucks pass the zero kilometer area in Sepaku subdistrict, North Penajam Paser Regency, East Kalimantan, where planners say the new presidential palace will be built, Nov. 23, 2021. (Courtesy of JATAM)

Borneo Bound: Inside Indonesia’s Big Plan to Move its Capital

A law slated for passage in early 2022 could put relocation in motion and line the pockets of Jakarta’s elite.

Dandy Koswaraputra – East Kalimantan, Indonesia

As he stands on land where his family has lived for generations, Jubein Jafar worries he will soon be evicted to make way for a presidential palace, as part of plans to construct Indonesia’s new capital city on the eastern edge of Borneo.

Jubein, a Dayak leader, welcomes the government’s plan to move the nation’s capital to this largely underdeveloped area, and away from Jakarta, a traffic-choked and polluted mega-city in densely populated Java that has long been Indonesia’s power center and seat of government.

But he is not sure what this means for him, and people like him, who have long lived on the land, but cannot prove ownership. The government has given private companies concessions over the surrounding forest.

“We may not be able to hold on to our land, what is going to happen with our crops?” Jubein told BenarNews in a recent interview.

The 55-year-old is customary chief of the Paser Balik tribe in Pemaluan, a village in the North Penajam Paser regency of East Kalimantan province.

In Jakarta earlier this month, members of parliament began debating a bill that, if approved, would require the project to be completed no matter who is in charge of the government.

Jubein, like other villagers in Sepaku, a subdistrict of North Penajam Paser, farms on a small scale, cultivating palm oil and rubber on a portion of a 2-square-mile (5-sq-km) plot.

The land is part of a concession now controlled by billionaire businessman Sukanto Tanoto, after his conglomerate acquired a company owned by businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the younger brother of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Sukanto controls a 158-square-mile (409-sq-km) plot designated to be the capital city’s main secure zone. Hashim controls a 668-square-mile (1,730-sq-km) swath that includes parts of North Penajam Paser, Kutai Kartanegara and West Kutai regencies.

For Jubein and many of Sepaku’s 36,000 residents, it’s hard to believe that so few people can control a forest four times the size of Jakarta.

Fearing that their egalitarian and community-oriented way of life could be swept aside in the construction of a glittering new city in the middle of the forest, Jubein and his fellow tribespeople have asked the government for financial compensation and new land.

“It is necessary for us to maintain our culture and customs,” Jubein said.

Because he has no legal proof of land ownership, Jubein said he has no leverage against the government and developers. He and his ancestors have been on this land long before they were granted rights to it, and possibly even before the Republic of Indonesia was born in 1945.

Speaking on behalf of the Dayak people living in North Penajam Paser, Jubein said he would prefer to live in his house without any furniture than to be kicked off the land.

“I’m afraid that it will just be arbitrary. We will be evicted just like that, they will tell us to just relocate and cultivate somewhere, but without any clarity on what the conditions will be,” he said.

Jubein Jafar, a leader of the Balik Tribe in Kalimantan, surveys a palm-oil plantation he manages on land slated to become part of Indonesia’s new capital, Oct. 28, 2021. [Dandy Koswaraputra/BenarNews]
Mega-city blues

Andrinof Chaniago, the former head of the National Development and Planning Ministry (Bappenas), who is involved in planning the capital relocation, says it is very much needed.

Among reasons he cites to justify moving the capital to Kalimantan – the Indonesian portion of Borneo – is that Jakarta has grown too big.

The city is no longer properly able to provide public services such as public transportation, waste management, river management, and public housing, he said.

“It has become burdensome because the population growth rate in the greater Jakarta area is high, above the national average and is caused by, among other things, urbanization,” Andrinof told BenarNews.

According to a census done by the Central Bureau of Statistics last year, Jakarta’s population is 10.56 million, an increase of about 10 percent from a decade earlier.

Borneo Dreams: Indonesia's Grand Plan to Move its Capital

With its soaring growth, Jakarta lacks green and open spaces. Andrinof noted that in some cases, residents who died had to be buried in Cikarang in West Java, a two hour-drive from central Jakarta, while others were buried on top of deceased relatives in Jakarta.

“This is a characteristic of a city that can no longer accommodate or provide for the needs of its residents,” Andrinof said.

It is imperative that the capital move to reduce the pressure of population growth, urbanization and migration on Jakarta and its surrounding cities, he added.

About 58 percent of Indonesia’s 272 million people live on the island of Java. Most inhabit western Java and are concentrated in the greater Jabodetabek area – Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi.

“I am often reminded that Java accounts for less than 7 percent of Indonesia’s total land area,” Andrinof said.

If the island’s population were to continue growing by at least 1.5 percent annually, Andrinof said, it could reach 300 million by 2060 and could face clean water concerns, drought during the dry season and flooding during the rainy season.

As for the concerns of people like Jubein Jafar, Indonesian law requires the government to uphold indigenous people’s rights, Andrinof said, but he conceded that those laws are not always properly executed.

Grand plan unveiled

When he unveiled the capital relocation plan during a national address on the eve of Indonesia’s Independence Day in August 2019, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo highlighted such concerns.

“The results of our studies conclude that the most ideal location of the new capital is in part of North Penajam Paser Regency and part of Kutai Kartanegara Regency,” he said at the time.

Ten days later, Jokowi formally announced that the new seat of government would be built in the neighboring regencies in East Kalimantan.

Andrinof said the region is home to a small population made up of several ethnic backgrounds –Javanese, Makassar, Bugis, Dayak and Malay Melayu, – who work the land with right-to-cultivate, or Hak Guna Usaha (HGU), permits.

Bappenas has projected that by 2045, when the new capital is scheduled to be fully in place, North Penajam Paser Regency will have a population of 1.9 million – about 10 times its current size. The population of East Kalimantan province, in turn, would grow to 11 million from 3.7 million.

Suharso Monoarfa, the current minister of Bappenas, said the new capital project is estimated to cost 466 trillion rupiah (U.S. $32.3 billion), of which less than 20 percent would be allocated from the state budget and the rest would come from the private sector and foreign investors.

Indonesia has been eyeing the United Arab Emirates as a potential investor in the project, and Jokowi recently described the plan at a forum with UAE businessmen.

Given the scope and cost the project, people are questioning whether it could stall halfway. Other concerns include whether future governments will commit to the project, after Jokowi’s administration ends in 2024.

Lawmakers say passage of a law authorizing construction of the new nation’s capital will allay such concerns.

The bill states that the capital region would cover an area of 988 square miles, including 215 square miles for the future capital city – slightly smaller than the city-state of Singapore.

“Welcome to the Nation’s Capital” reads a sign at the main gate of what is slated to be Indonesia’s new capital in East Kalimantan province, Oct. 29, 2021. (Dandy Koswaraputra/BenarNews)

Though lawmakers are still debating the bill, the government on Dec. 14 established a special task force to focus on implementing the project. The Public Works and Public Housing Ministry reportedly appointed Danis Sumadilaga, the director-general of highways, to lead the task force.

Previously, lawmaker Muhammad Rifqinizamy Karsayuda had urged MPs to establish their own special committee immediately, to get the legislation moving.

“I also encourage the special committee to work until the parliament passes the new capital city bill into law,” said Rifqi, who sits on a house commission that oversees land and agrarian reform.

Rifqi, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – Jokowi’s party – said the bill’s passage was crucial in order for the government to begin construction next year. Without such action, the project could falter, he warned.

Suharso, the Bappenas chief, said the bill consists of 34 articles and nine chapters containing, among others things, plans for the development, organization and management of the new capital.

“It also includes relocation phases and financing,” Suharso said during a recent hearing with lawmakers.

The legislation calls for the establishment of a body tasked with managing development of the new city, headed by a leader appointed by the central government. “Regarding when the bill will be passed into law, only parliament can answer. But I have read that they want to get it done by February 2022,” Andrinof, the former Bappenas minister, said.


Opposition voices

The ministry has set a target to transfer capital city status from Jakarta to Ibu Kota Negara – the city’s Bahasa Indonesia name, which translates literally as The Nation’s Capital – during the first half of 2024, months before Jokowi is due to leave office.

But it could take two decades to finish building the city.

Suharso set out to reassure people that the government would welcome comments about the project.

He said he met a few months ago with local public figures, scholars and regional administration officials to get feedback on the project. The concept, he said, is to build the seat of government at a more neutral site, away from the traditional power center in Java, and that doing so would represent the diversity of peoples who live across the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

“The most important thing we have to bear in mind when we talk about the new capital, whatever the context, it is Indonesia-centric, not Kalimantan-centric, or Java-centric. It is our pride from the Indonesia-centric perspective, and it reflects on the strength of a heterogeneous East Kalimantan,” Suharso said in an official statement from the ministry.

But a local activist group questioned the official line and said that the Balik tribespeople felt they had been shut out of project discussions.

“That is actually part of the story that we are gathering,” said Merah Johansyah, national coordinator of activist group Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), referring to research on the project’s impact on indigenous people in North Penajam Paser and its surrounding region.

MPs in Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR), meanwhile, have been debating the planned project’s pros and cons.

Opposition lawmaker Mardani Ali Sera said the initiative to clear-cut forests in Kalimantan to build a new capital from the ground up was not in line with global commitments to tackle climate change.

The Prosperous Justice Party politician listed several concerns.

Among them, there is no need to relocate the capital during the age of digital technology, and it is a waste of money, he said.

“People are no longer viewing things in a physical form, they are more concerned about the network. The costs are astronomical and we are worried that it is not technically and economically feasible,” Mardani told BenarNews.

In addition there is a risk that the project could stall or run into problems, the lawmaker said. As an example, he cited the construction of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project, a China-backed project that initially did not use government funds but ended up relying on the state budget as well.

“There is no urgency, it is unnecessary. Therefore, it is not right pushing for this project,” Mardani said.

Arif Wibowo, a fellow lawmaker who backs the project, says passage of the new capital law is needed to accord capital city status to the regency in East Kalimantan, as well as to require future presidents to keep the project going until completion.

Proposals to move the capital away from Jakarta were also floated by past presidents, dating back to the eras of Suharto and Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding leader.

“So, in my opinion, it has been a long-standing idea and program, and President Jokowi is now continuing it,” Arif said.

Other countries that moved their capitals found such efforts could succeed through prudent management and meticulous planning, Arif noted, adding that Jakarta would remain the country’s business hub.

As for Andrinof, the ex-Bappenas minister, he sees concerns expressed about the project as a natural reaction to a government policy, especially for such a massive endeavor that involves many stakeholders.

“The lawmakers are welcome to be transparent to the public on the government ideas and concepts. Please be as transparent as possible about them to the public. A certain faction should not have refused it right away without intending to talk about it. It is odd,” he said.

For this advocate of the project, its footprint must be friendly to both the environment and to people in surrounding communities affected by it.

The national capital must be a world-class city – conducive to all beings and all levels of society. In his view, that means the city must also be friendly to plants and indigenous animals, both on land and in water.

“Those are the things that we have to pay attention to,” Andrinof said.

Like ants to sugar

Against the backdrop of the debate, a new reality is already taking root in North Penajam Paser, where profit seekers are competing to seize economic resources even before MPs enact the new capital law.

Land speculators who in most cases are not from Kalimantan have acquired nearly all the land in the new capital area.

“Even the North Penajam Paser coastal areas have been acquired, a celebrity from Jakarta is among the owners,” said Pradarma Rupang, an activist from the East Kalimantan chapter of JATAM, the mining watchdog network.

A timber truck passes through the so-called “zero kilometer area” in Sepaku subdistrict, North Penajam Paser Regency, East Kalimantan, where planners say the new presidential palace will be built, Oct. 27, 2021. (Dandy Koswaraputra/BenarNews)

Rupang said Jakartan elites could see financial profits from this project, primarily those who control mining, timber and palm-oil plantation concessions. Among those who could profit are public figures, including a minister in the current administration, Rupang noted.

People whom Rupang dubbed as oligarchs would be compensated with land when the government claims their properties for the project.

“It’s difficult to find substitute land in Indonesia, the only forest areas available are in Papua,” Rupang said, referring to Indonesia’s far-eastern provinces on the western half of New Guinea Island.

Mining, timber concession and palm-oil businessmen are occupying North Penajam Paser lands and several areas in Balikpapan, the nearest city, he said.

“Shortly after Jokowi announced the capital city relocation to Kalimantan before the parliament, property giants such as Agung Podomoro immediately placed an ad in Kompas daily,” he said.

According to Andrinof, it is only natural for businesses and land speculators to emerge around the new capital project, because entrepreneurs always seek new opportunities for investment.

“It’s like where there is sugar, there are also ants. What is important is we regulate them so their business activities will not inflict losses on people,” Andrinof said.

‘They would just be spectators’

That concept does not allay concerns expressed by locals in East Kalimantan.

Merah, the JATAM national coordinator, said the government never invited members of the Suku Balik tribe to discuss the project, and that plans were hatched before studies were completed.

Balikpapan Bay, seen here on Oct. 27, 2021, would lie inside the new capital city’s security ring, activists say. (Dandy Koswaraputra/BenarNews)

For instance, Merah said, planners overlooked the fact that the region chosen for the new capital area is already vulnerable to water shortages. Should there be a population explosion, the demand for water will only increase. This issue has been documented by the Strategic Environment Studies Institution (KLHS), he noted.

Merah, who is a native of East Kalimantan, said the government should have referred to the KLHS research before making the decision.

“That is not how it happened. They decided the location and conducted the study later,” Merah said.

“That’s just one aspect of the story, about water supply – not to mention jobs. Is there a study about how land-use change will impact jobs?” Merah said. “Jubein is a farmer, what will he do later?”

Merah said there has been no study – or at least one made public – to determine how the project would affect the economic livelihoods of North Penajam Paser people.

Andrinof disputes the activist group’s assertion, calling it “baseless.”

“I’m sure they never checked with Bappenas,” he said, asserting that the planning ministry had gathered adequate information for the government to decide on a site for the new capital, and had researched the potential impact on the environment and the economy.

Sepaku subdistrict, where the Dayak leader Jubein Jafar lives, is a major rice producer. The regency that encompasses it is home to settlers from Java who, for three generations, have farmed paddy fields and raised cattle, Merah said.

Along with farmers, fishermen in the Balikpapan Bay could lose their source of income because the waterway would lie inside the new capital city’s security ring, he said.

For Rupang, the local JATAM activist, the Suku Balik tribe stands to benefit the least from the capital project. The tribal group has lived on the land for generations but has often been sidelined when it comes to development projects in East Kalimantan.

“They would just be spectators,” Rupang said.

Andrinof called on all parties to view the core idea of relocating the capital as an attempt to even out Indonesia’s economic structure based on diversity.

“We can sit together and debate on the operational level to seek the best solutions, not to call off this project,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jubein and others have simpler aspirations – they say they want to live peacefully while maintaining their rights as citizens.

“Please don’t evict us from this land. Relocating is not part of our local wisdom, which has stood for generations,” he said.

Reporting and writing by: Dandy Koswaraputra
Editing: John Bechtel, Kate Beddall, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson, Imran Vittachi
Translation: Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata, Ika Inggas, Kate Beddall
Web page design: Minh-Ha Le
Produced by BenarNews
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