Capital games: Indonesia is building its new capital on indigenous land and it doesn’t bode well for rainforests or the climate

Logging road in East Kalimantan: logged forest on the left straddles virgin/primary forest on the right. Photo: Wakx

The Indonesian government’s plan to move its capital to Borneo ignores the voices of the Dayak indigenous people and poses massive risks to the environment.


For the Indonesian government, the Borneo province of East Kalimantan is a clean slate. It is a blank page to design and build a cleaner, safer, more efficient capital city. But this swath of Borneo that Indonesian President Joko Widodo has chosen for a new capital is occupied by the indigenous Dayak, a society that already does a better job of managing valuable land and rainforest than the Indonesian government. 

The current capital of Jakarta is a megacity located on the island of Java with a metro population of 30 million. It’s also sinking at a rate of two inches per year in some areas and rising sea levels will only make the problem worse. 

Illegal wells and construction are common, underground aquifers are depleted and 40% of the city now sits below sea level. The city’s water resources are polluted, its air quality is among the worst in the world and its traffic jams are infamous.

The government’s contingency plan is to up sticks and move the capital: not to abandon Jakarta, just to remove the central government from the equation. 

But the new site for the capital brings a host of environmental and social challenges: chiefly that the planned location is already home to the indigenous Dayak people. It’s not clear that the Indonesian government has consulted the Dayak at all or asked for their consent.

The Widodo government plans to construct a new US$33 billion city to house the capital in a heavily forested area of East Kalimantan that the Dayak have called home for around 3,000 years. The new city will decimate their environment and drastically alter their way of life. 

The scheme to transplant the capital also risks transplanting the city’s environmental problems.  If the Indonesian government has been unable to solve these problems in Jakarta, why would East Kalimantan be any different?

The Indonesian government risks creating an environmental and indigenous rights disaster

According to Indonesian Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro, the land acquisition process in East Kalimantan will begin in 2020. The government has already designated 180,000 hectares for the new capital city. Widodo has said that the state budget will cover 19% of the cost of the new capital and that the rest will be covered by private investment and public-private partnerships.

Brodjonegoro also claims that the project won’t have a negative impact on the environment. “We will not disturb any existing protected forest, instead we will rehabilitate it,” said the planning minister.

The plan Brodjonegoro outlined to reporters in August includes 50% “green space” in the city.

“The open green space won’t mean it’s cleared land, but an actual green area, and our concept is that of a forest city. So as we build the new capital from zero, we will also restore the environment in Kalimantan,” he continued.

But the Indonesian government doesn’t have a good track record of protecting the rainforests of Borneo. The Dayak territory on East Kalimantan has already seen the effects of deforestation and conflicts caused by mining, palm oil plantations and logging. 

The Dayak have struggled against displacement resulting from government-backed concessions since the 1970s. Tracts of rainforest have been cleared to bring in agriculture, bringing with it devastating floods and brushfires. The pace of deforestation is also already increasing rapidly: in 2018, East Kalimantan lost 600,000 hectares of forest, a 43% increase from the year before.

The spread of palm and intensive agriculture into Dayak territory has also increased social inequality. Gender dynamics in Dayak culture are traditionally more egalitarian than in most of Indonesian society. In Dayak society, women manage rice fields while men hunt, fish and work as wage labourers. “Rice cultivation remains an important pillar, not only of household food security but of feminized identities within the community,” wrote Dr Rebecca Elmhirst of the University of Brighton.

With the arrival of palm plantations, many women began working as wage labourers and became reliant on men for transportation.

The land concession process for intensive agriculture excluded women and destroyed the livelihoods of many families. Wealth inequality and gender power gaps widened as palm plantations took over women’s rice paddies and cleared the forests where many Dayak communities foraged and hunted.

These incursions by intensive agriculture, as well as mining projects, also pose a major risk to the unique biodiversity of the forest. The Borneo rainforests are among the few places where orangutans, sun bears, pangolins and other endangered species still live in their natural habitats. A study released earlier this year showed that road-building projects in the Indonesian government’s 2011-2025 development master plan could reduce the amount of wildlife forest habitat in Borneo by almost 50%. 

The Borneo rainforests are among the last surviving habitats of sun bears, pangolins and orangutans.
Photo: Z0man

The Dayak have arguably done a much better job of caring for the region’s forest than the Indonesian government. Where the Dayak in East Kalimantan have held onto their territory, they practice sustainable land management that supports the rainforest. Residents practice mixed cropping agriculture and traditional shifting cultivation. This system maintains the health of the soil and encourages biodiversity.

Residents practice community forestry. In many places they depend on the forest for food security and livelihoods. The Dayak consider the tracts of rainforest where they live to be community assets: they hunt and collect vegetables, rattan, bamboo, resin, herbs, cane, bird’s nest, timber and other products.

Indigenous land management is vital to biodiversity: 80% of the world’s biodiversity depends on indigenous communities. A recent study in Environmental Science and Policy found that across the globe, indigenous-managed lands hold more biodiversity than protected areas.

The capital relocation project risks worsening land rights issues and wrecking one of the country’s best chances to preserve vital forests and biodiversity.

In a climate crisis, a capital in Borneo is a bad bargain

The forests of Borneo are vital, in part, because they play a key role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. For a country threatened by extreme weather, shifting climates and rising seas, disrupting a carbon sink is a major risk. 

“In an area already under severe pressure from deforestation, destroying peatlands would release a massive amount of emissions. Drained peatlands are highly prone to fires, with serious environmental, economic and health impacts,” World Resources Institute Indonesia Country Director Nirarta Samadhi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As one high school student put it, “Kalimantan is the lungs of the world, and I am worried we will lose the forest we have left.”

The government has said it selected the site in East Kalimantan because of its central location and relatively low risk of natural disasters. The islands of Java, Lombok, Sulawesi and Bali have all seen tsunamis, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions in the last two years. As the effects of climate change intensify, natural disasters are expected to become more frequent and more severe. 

But Dayak territory doesn’t need Jakarta’s problems: it already has its own. Civil society groups have questioned the logic of Widodo’s decision and come out against the move.

“Jakarta has suffered so many failures from pollution, water crisis, and flooding. We don’t want these problems in the new capital,” said Jasmine Puteri, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace.

There’s also one piece missing from all this: it doesn’t appear that the Indonesian government has the consent of the Dayak in East Kalimantan. The Indonesian government is taking a gamble that will not only cost tens of billions of dollars but also jeopardises the climate, risk the nation’s natural resources and violate the rights of local communities to free, prior and informed consent. 

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