Indonesia's new Borneo capital an 'environmental disaster', say critics

Conservationists say $33bn project will damage Borneo ecosystem, writes Deborah Cassrels

Kahayan River is pictured as smog covers the area due to the forest fire in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, October 1, 2019. Firefighters, military personnel and water-dropping helicopters have been deployed to combat the fires in Sumatra and Borneo that have caused thick haze in the neighboring countries, Singapore and Malaysia. (Photo by Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Plans for Indonesia to build a smart capital from scratch in the middle of the Borneo jungle, home to endangered animals such as orangutans, have raised concerns among environmentalists.

The new capital, nicknamed the forest city, is planned for East Kalimantan, a province on the eastern side of the island. It is supposed to replace Jakarta as the country's administrative base in 2024.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is known for ambitious infrastructure projects. He announced the move in August and promised to protect conservation forest and orangutan habitats, with palm oil expansion having already thinned their numbers during the past two decades.

"A capital city is not only a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation. This is for the realisation of economic equality and justice," Mr Widodo said at the time.

Patchy details unveiled so far by Indonesia's National Development Planning Agency include the use of renewable and low carbon energy in the Borneo project, such as solar and wind power.

Officials say an efficient, green building design will feature, with smart water and waste management systems, railways, electric vehicles and upgraded tollways and ports near the urban hubs of Balikpapan and Samarinda.

Yet the government faces accusations that its promise of a green capital in a province known for extensive logging, palm oil plantations, pulp and paper mills, and forest fires is a contradiction in terms.

Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Jasmine Puteri told The National that the practical details of the proposed eco-friendly city are lacking.

"The government is using broad terms, like 50 per cent green space, low carbon energy. This does not reflect an actual green sustainable city," she said.

One area that has been identified for the project is a protected forest called Bukit Soeharto. It is home to wildlife conservation groups and an orangutan rehabilitation centre.

Critics say building there will harm the forest's mangroves and the habitats of already threatened animals such as long-nosed monkeys and dugongs.

"There are ecological infrastructures like the water supply used by the orangutans and communities in protected forests, which are the buffer zone to Bukit Soeharto. So development there will hurt the conservation area," said Merah Johansyah, head of Jatam, Indonesia's mining advocacy network.

A compact city that is reliant on mass electric public transport and solar energy is an appealing idea, said Leonard Simanjuntak, head of Greenpeace Indonesia.

He said that although the Indonesian government promised not to disturb protected forest and to restore degraded areas, there were "factors that didn't add up".

"Mine mouth coal power plants are being constructed to supply electricity to East Kalimantan," he said.

"This leads to another contradiction – whether they really want to build only a bureaucratic city, or they're thinking of another mega city."

He said he feared urban sprawl would destroy virgin rainforest and animal habitats.

"We are worried about forest conversion in surrounding areas that have already been affected by the expansion of palm oil and coal mining," Mr Simanjuntak said. About 20 million hectares of land in the area have already been converted for palm oil plantations.

Part of the motivation for the move is the fact Jakarta, a metropolis on the most populous Indonesian island of Java and home to about 10 million people, is sinking as a result of groundwater extraction and rising sea levels. It also suffers from extreme traffic congestion, pollution and flooding.

Although it will remain the economic heart of the country and have $40 billion (Dh146.9bn) ploughed into regeneration programmes, the new city will be built over 180,000 hectares of state-owned forest land and 110 coal mining concessions, with work scheduled to start next year at a cost of $33bn.

The area was largely chosen for the minimal risk of natural disasters that besiege much of a country on the seismic and volcanic active belt known as the Ring of Fire.

Adding to concerns about the city's effect on the local environment is the need for materials to make cement, which could put Borneo's limestone structures at risk.

The Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat Karst, or limestone landscape, in East Kalimantan, has scores of prehistoric cave fossils and rock art dating back 35,000 years. It has been nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site, while the area is also home to diverse species, such as blind freshwater fish, bats and nest swiftlets.

But at least nine cement companies are waiting for licences to extract the limestone.

Merah Johansyah, who was born in East Kalimantan, said he had watched in dismay as one of the world's oldest rainforests was denuded.

"What we need is ecological restoration," he said. "The legacy of Jokowi [Mr Widodo] will be environmental disaster, not a new capital city."