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New Indonesian capital offers opportunities for development, but environmental pitfalls abound

JAKARTA: The announcement to relocate Indonesia‘s capital city to East Kalimantan province provides an opportunity to shift the developmental focus to other parts of the archipelago, but environmental pitfalls will need to be avoided, said experts and activists interviewed by CNA.

Economist Kresnayana Yahya from ITS University in Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya said the government‘s decision provides a good opportunity to develop Kalimantan and other parts of Indonesia

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At the same time, this will allow the government to shift the developmental focus away from Java, he said.

“Economically, this will improve Kalimantan’s economy because it will be integrated with other islands. At the moment, the national economy is 65 per cent dominated by Java,” Mr Yahya noted.

Urban planner Ahmad Gamal agreed, adding that there may be other positive outcomes.

“If an official criticises the government services at the location where he or she lives, the parties involved will feel obligated to improve things,” said Mr Gamal, who is with the University of Indonesia.

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He added that East Kalimantan‘s geological structure is more suitable for the construction of a new city as compared to Central Kalimantan, an alternative site dominated by swamps.

Jakarta is choked with air pollution, suffers from massive traffic congestion and is sinking up to 20cm yearly, one of the fastest rates in the world.

READ: Commentary: Jakarta’s air quality kills its residents – and it’s getting worseREAD: Jakarta residents sue Indonesia government over air pollution

Thus, the government decided to move the current capital from megacity Jakarta which has a population of 10 million people to a less crowded area in the dense jungles of Borneo island, home to the critically endangered species orangutan.

The new capital, which the president announced on Monday (Aug 26), would be located partly in Penajam Paser Utara regency and partly in Kutai Kartanegara regency in mineral-rich East Kalimantan province. The government has said it would be a smart and green city. 

The local parliament building of Kutai Kartanegara Regency in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Arief Rahman Saan)

“We cannot continue to burden Jakarta and Java any more in terms of population density, congestion, pollution and water resources,” President Joko Widodo said during the televised announcement.

He named several reasons for choosing the area in East Kalimantan as the yet to be named new capital and seat of the central government.

Both regencies are not prone to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, volcanic eruptions and landslides, unlike most parts of Indonesia.

The government also owns 180,000 hectares land in the area which is strategically located in the middle of the country, near major towns Balikpapan and Samarinda.

Under Mr Widodo’s plan, government workers would be relocated to the new capital while the centre of business would remain in Jakarta.

The move to relocate the capital has been in discussion since 1957 when Indonesia’s first president Soekarno proposed to move the Dutch colonial capital from Jakarta to Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan.

Second President Soeharto later planned to move it to Jonggol, West Java in 1997.

READ: Leaving Jakarta – Indonesia accelerates plans for ‘green, smart’ capital in the middle of Borneo wilderness

ENVIRONMENTALISTS SCEPTICAL

Despite the government’s promise to protect the environment and East Kalimantan from becoming the next Jakarta, environmentalists are sceptical.

Mining Advocacy Network JATAM believed the capital’s relocation will only benefit concessionaires and land-owners at the expense of the environment.

There are currently 1,190 mining licenses issued in East Kalimantan and 625 in Kutai Kartanegara, according to JATAM’s data.

About 13.83 million hectares of permits have been granted and 5.2 million of them are mining permits, the NGO claimed.  

KIARA, an NGO focusing on fishermen’s livelihood, noted that the capital’s relocation will affect the livelihoods of coastal communities that are dependent on marine and fishery resources in Balikpapan Bay.

A tug boat pulls a coal barge along the Mahakam River in Kalimantan province, Indonesia on Mar 2, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS)

It said more than 10,000 fishermen catch fish daily in Balikpapan Bay. Of this figure, 6,426 are from Kutai Kartanegara, 2,984 are from North Penajam Paser, and 1,253 are from Balikpapan.

“The threat now besides being a traffic lane for coal barges, Balikpapan Bay will be the only logistical route for the ne of the construction of a new capital,” said Ms Susan Herawati, Secretary General of KIARA, adding that East Kalimantan does not yet have zoning regulations on coastal areas and small islands.

JATAM also claimed the citizens were not consulted. “The citizens have the right to express their opinion and this was clearly denied … East Kalimantan residents, including its indigenous people weren’t given the chance to express their voice,” JATAM’S spokesman Merah Johansyah said in a statement.

Mr Gamal of the University of Indonesia also noted that the new area includes protected forest.

“We need the full commitment of the government, not only at the planning stage but also at the implementation stage, that the interests of ecological conservation are not sacrificed for the purposes of moving the capital,” he told CNA.

PLANNING FROM A CLEAN SLATE

This aerial picture taken on Jul 31, 2019 by news outlet Tribun Kaltim shows a view of the area around Samboja, Kutai Kartanegara, one of two locations proposed by the government for Indonesia‘s new capital. (Photo: AFP / TRIBUN KALTIM / Fachmi RACHMAN)

Looking ahead, Jakarta-based urban planner Sibarani Sofian said the construction of a new capital would allow the authorities to start from a clean slate and get things right.

“The new capital has to be built thoroughly, not in conventional ways and in a rush.

Singapore is the best example when it comes to tropical city design. They (the government) need to study from various cases and learn from various sources. Not only from success stories, but also from failures,” he said.

He added that it cannot be “business as usual” and the planning ne to be comprehensive.

“It can’t be just another standard Indonesian city, meaning there have to be clear targets which are measurable. For example, the city which improves air quality from X to Y, with Y being good air quality level internationally.”

READ: Trading places – Countries that moved their capitals

He added that Kalimantan‘s climate is highly humid and the temperatures are always high. In this regard, the design ne to bear in mind these climatic conditions, especially in terms of wind and sun orientation, he said.

Mr Sofian elaborated that the new capital should be based on people, not vehicles and thus mass transport systems need to be implemented before private cars invade the city.

“This is very possible because they’re designing a city from scratch,” he said, adding that it should also have a specific Indonesian character.