Indonesia pushes ahead with capital shift

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, is pushing ahead with a plan to move Indonesia’s capital to Borneo to reduce pollution and congestion in sinking Jakarta.

The mega-city of around 30 million is heavily polluted with never-ending traffic jams and prone to flooding and earthquakes.

Congestion is estimated to cost 100 trillion rupiah (US$7 billion) a year in lost productivity.

Anyone who has visited Jakarta will know the misery of its endless traffic jams and punishing air pollution.

The Javan city is rapidly sinking and predicted to face serious water shortages by 2040.

In the last month alone, Jakarta has endured an air pollution crisis, a prolonged power cut and an earthquake.

The president aims to ensure a wider distribution of wealth beyond the island of Java, which currently makes up more than 50 per cent of the Indonesian economy and is home to almost 60 per cent of the population, despite accounting for just 7 per cent of its territory.

While Jakarta is one of the region’s least loveable cities, it shares many of the characteristics of the East Asian megacity: brutal traffic, filthy air, endless concrete and almost zero aesthetic appeal or care to preserve heritage.

Planning law is an unknown concept in cities across China, Korea, Taiwan and most of Asean, where older buildings and surrounding countryside are ripped apart in endless, ugly urban sprawl. Many cites, like Bangkok, have no defined perimeter and merge with surrounding areas in a conurbation of highways, malls and newly built housing complexes.

But a new capital on Borneo would be “smart, green, beautiful and sustainable”, Indonesia said.

It is hard to see how mass deforestation and the word “green” go together.

East Kalimantan is the front runner and sites in Central and South Kalimantan are also in the reckoning to host the new capital.

Environmentalists say the suggested areas have large swathes of untouched forest that are home to orangutans and other endangered species, like sun bears, clouded leopards, porcupines, gibbons, anteaters and sambar deers.

Bukit Soeharto national park has also emerged as a centre for the rehabilitation of plants like the acacia, sengon and macaranga.

“This is a conservation area for animal rehabilitation, like the honey bear,” said Yohana Tiko of Walhi in East Kalimantan.

She said large-scale development would damage the area’s waterways, which are already polluted by coal mines and palm oil plantations, many of which are illegal.

“When the management of water is disturbed, floods will occur during the rainy season and drought during the dry season. And there’ll be landslides as well,” she told the media.

“We don’t want the new capital to end up just moving [Jakarta’s] problems and disasters to East Kalimantan.”

The proposed site would surround the Bukit Soeharto national park, which contains an orangutan conservation centre. Planners said they were intending to build on about 30 per cent of the park.

Indonesian Borneo does have some attractions for the government in Jakarta.

East Kalimantan falls outside the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean basin that is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes. The region is also free from ethnic strife.

The move could be largely funded by private investment, said Indonesia’s Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro.

The cost of moving the capital was estimated at 466 trillion rupiah (US$33 billion) if it involved the development of 40,000 hectares for around 1.5 million residents, the Planning Ministry estimated. The cost could be cut to 323 trillion rupiah if only part of the government was moved to an area of 30,000 hectares, the ministry projected in April.

Brodjonegoro said construction would start in 2021, with residents expected to move to the giant island, which is shared with Malaysia and Brunei, in 2024, the final year of Widodo’s second term.

“[Widodo] would like to use his whole second term to realise this idea of a new capital,” Brodjonegoro said.

Australia’s purpose-built capital, Canberra, would act as an architectural inspiration, he added.

One example to avoid is the ludicrous, bizarre capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, which spreads across an area five times the size of New York City and is unpopular with almost everyone forced to relocate there.

The generals who moved the capital from Yangon were not motivated by environmental concerns but the desire to ensure their safety. The 16-lane roads, that are always empty, were built to prevent mobs from constructing blockades and to allow their private jets ample runways to flee during a popular uprising.

Jakarta’s embassies would also be expected to relocate, forcing the current diplomatic missions to be downgraded to consulates.

After considerable investment, in 2016 Australia opened its largest-ever embassy in Jakarta.

From an environmental point of view, it is challenging to assess whether the relocation plan makes sense.

Helping Jakarta sink slower and cut congestion is positive. But replacing habitats and primordial rainforest with fresh concrete is the last thing that the planet needs. The Jakarta administration should estimate the carbon produced by the extra flights to Kalimantan, which would only increase as the relocation project develops. Measures to make Jakarta more sustainable might be more sensible from an environmental point of view than exporting the city’s problems to Kalimantan.

What has Kalimantan done to deserve the relocation? Picture credit: Flickr