Indonesia unveils construction site for new capital

PENAJAM PASER UTARA, Indonesia — Orange-red ground has been shattered in the jungles of East Borneo, where the Indonesian government has begun construction of its new capital.

Officials promise a “sustainable forest city” that puts the environment at the heart of development and aims to be carbon neutral by 2045. But the project has been plagued by criticism from environmentalists and indigenous communities, who say it degrades the environment, further shrinking the habitat of endangered animals such as orangutans, and displacing indigenous peoples who depend on the land for their livelihood.

Indonesia began construction of the new capital in mid-2022, after President Joko Widodo announced that Jakarta – the current congested and polluted capital, prone to earthquakes and rapidly sinking into the Java Sea – would be withdrawn from capital status.

The plans for the new capital – about twice the size of New York – are grand. Officials tout the creation of a futuristic green city centered on forest, parks and food production that uses renewable energy resources, “smart” waste management and green buildings.

“We have to think beyond what is happening today and try to tackle (things) that are futuristic,” said Bambang Susantono, chairman of the Nusantara National Capital Authority, speaking about the design of the city. and its ability to meet future challenges.

Digital renderings shared by the government show a town surrounded by forest, with people walking on tree-lined sidewalks and buildings with plant-covered roofs surrounded by walking paths, ponds, clean streams and forest lush.

The architecture of the buildings is inspired by modern urban towers combined with traditional Indonesian architecture: the presidential palace in the shape of a garuda – a mythical bird and the national symbol of Indonesia – and other buildings that give a nod stylistic eye to the traditional architecture used by indigenous groups around the archipelago.

In its current state, the new city is far from the polished finish presented by its planners, but there is progress. Basuki Hadimuljono, Indonesia’s Minister of Public Works and Housing, said in February that the city’s infrastructure was 14% complete.

Some 7,000 construction workers clear, plow and construct the early phases of the site. Dormitories for workers, basic roads and a helipad are already in use. The construction of key buildings – such as the presidential palace – is expected to be completed by August 2024.

Sites visited by The Associated Press in early March showed mounds of freshly turned earth with diggers and cranes around them. At least one site has a sign with a QR code that visitors can scan to see 3D visuals of what the area will look like when complete; others have printed signs indicating what is to come.

The government has said that it is trying to respect the environment. Signs of a more conscious approach to construction are visible: plots of trees remain fenced off to protect them from machinery, a nursery has already started for the replanting process promised by officials, and an industrial forest surrounds the site.

But with construction expected to ramp up this year, environmentalists warn that building a metropolis will accelerate deforestation in one of the world’s largest and oldest tracts of tropical rainforest. Forests, called the lungs of the world, suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which warms the planet and are home to many wildlife species. The island has already been compromised by palm oil plantations and coal mining.

Dwi Sawung, infrastructure specialist at the Indonesian Forum for Living Environment, an environmental non-governmental organization overseeing the new capital project, said the government’s plans did not take into account the region’s unique wildlife, such as orangutans and sun bears. The new town crosses an important wildlife corridor.

“Animals need to be moved first, then build the construction,” he said. “But since they have to rush, they just built the area without moving the animals first.”

Experts have also expressed concerns about how the new capital will be powered. While the government promises the city will rely on a “smart energy” system, groups fear some of the region’s coal-fired power stations will be put to use in the short term.

Indonesia has significant energy potential from solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and other sources, but only 12% of them are exploited, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. And while friendly public transport may keep cars off the city’s roads, there will likely be plenty of air travel between the new capital and Jakarta, some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.

Indigenous groups residing in the area who have already lost parts of their land fear that the new capital’s urban sprawl will make matters worse.

Officials pledged to respect indigenous rights and compensate those who lose their homes. Local officials said they would verify all land claims and accept documents proving ownership, but much of the area is passed down by undocumented families and not all tribal areas are officially recognized.

“We don’t want to be relocated. We don’t want them moving the graves of our ancestors, altering or removing our historic site,” said Sibukdin, an indigenous community leader who, like many in the country, uses only one name. and lives in Sepaku, a neighborhood very close to the construction area.

Susantono said Indigenous residents have “a few options to be included in the process,” including compensation, relocation or co-ownership of stores that will open.

“We will always persuade them and talk to them about the future of the city,” he said. “I hope they will understand that it is for the good of all.”

But as Indonesia continues to court investors, construction is moving forward, with the government planning to inaugurate the city on August 17 next year to coincide with Indonesia’s Independence Day.

“Nusantara is the city of tomorrow,” Susantono said. “It will become a vibrant city, not just a government city.”


Tarigan and Milko reported from Jakarta. AP photographer Achmad Ibrahim and videographer Fadlan Syam contributed to this report from East Kalimantan, Indonesia.


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