Should Indonesia relocate its capital?

Sydney experts comment on Indonesia’s rapid-fire plan to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, Borneo by 2024.

Indonesia plans to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, a province on the island of Borneo. Image: University of Sydney

This week, Indonesia passed legislation to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, a province on the island of Borneo that is home to rainforests, rivers, and other habitats critical for species like the orangutan.

Built on a marsh and sitting below sea level, Jakarta has a growing population of 10 million and is rapidly sinking. With building commencing this year, the new capital is slated to be completed in just two years.

University of Sydney experts comment on whether the rapid-fire move is a wise idea, and how it will likely impact the environment, Indigenous communities, and Indonesian society.

Shifting capital places bureaucrats, politicians on an ‘ivory island’

Associate Professor Matous says when capital cities are geographically isolated, it measurably reduces political accountability, diminishes the provision of public goods and increases corruption. Image: Kaique Lopes, Pexels

Associate Professor Petr Matous is an academic from the School of Project Management who says the move raises several questions.

“After some silence on the topic during COVID, the Indonesian government has now publicly reaffirmed its plans to relocate its capital away from Jakarta’s alarmingly rapid subsidence below sea level. To do so, they have announced an ambitious timeline of only two years – which coincides with President Jokowi’s end of tenure,” said Associate Professor Matous who specialises in environmental and humanitarian engineering.

“Under the rapid-fire plan, public servants will be moving to new buildings in Kalimantan in two years. Meanwhile, the low-income informal Kampung settlers of Jakarta’s flood zones will stay where they are.”

“At first sight, the plan is appealing from a disaster reduction viewpoint because it would mean that Indonesia’s economic and political eggs won’t all be in one natural hazard basket, but many questions remain.

“Where is the time for community consultation, especially with Kalimantan’s Indigenous groups? How do they feel about 1.5 million outsiders coming on their land from Java in just two years?

“Studies have shown that politicians quite like having capital cities aways from the people. Capital city geographic isolation measurably reduces political accountability and diminishes the provision of public goods. It also increases corruption.”

“Where is the time for mapping the environmental status quo and assessing the risks of building from scratch a city three times larger than Canberra on land known for endangered endemic species, but also troubled by deforestation and associated fires?

“What are the risks of zoonoses (an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans) – not an idle threat when you consider the last two years – when pushing deeper the human-wildlife interface and encroaching into new habitats? The deadlines seem to leave time only for retrospective assessment of the damage by this mega-project when its implementation must be questioned.

“Studies have shown that politicians quite like having capital cities away from the people. Capital city geographic isolation measurably reduces political accountability and diminishes the provision of public goods. It also increases corruption.

“These are just some of the big questions that will need to be answered – hopefully not before the move is complete.”

Biodiversity, Indigenous rights already threatened

The region of East Kalimantan is immensely rich in biodiversity. Image: Pixabay

Dr Sophie Chao is an academic from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Her anthropological research examines the intersections of capitalism, Indigeneity, ecology, and justice in Indonesia.

“The region of East Kalimantan is immensely rich in biodiversity. It is home to over 133 mammal species, 11 primate species, and 3,000 types of trees, found across a diverse mosaic of karst landscapes, peat marsh, mangrove, natural re-growth forest, flatland dipterocarp forest, and humid forest,” said Dr Chao.

“The proposed relocation of Indonesia’s capital poses a major threat to local flora, fauna, and ecosystems, that are already vulnerable to the adverse impacts of large-scale extractive industries including oil, natural gas, and coal mining, logging, and monocrop oil palm plantations.

“In addition, it remains unclear whether the Indonesian government has sought to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of East Kalimantan’s diverse Indigenous groups for its proposed relocation. These Indigenous groups include the native Kutai and Dayak peoples, who rely primarily on swidden agriculture (a form of regenerative rotational farming) and forest resources for their livelihoods and subsistence and who entertain intimate and spiritual relationships with their lands and territories.”

“And yet, Indigenous Kutai and Dayaks’ customary rights to land and territories remain insufficiently recognised and respected under national and provincial laws. Numerous land-related conflicts between communities, the government, and corporations have been documented in the region. These are likely to multiply if the voices and aspirations of traditional custodians are not taken into account by the government.”

Moving might not preclude natural disasters

Dr Aaron Opdyke is a humanitarian engineer from the School of Civil Engineering who believes the allure of a clean slate may prove to have unintended results.

“The Indonesian Government’s arguments for the move centre on finding a location that is free from the threat of natural hazards that Jakarta frequently experiences, such as earthquakes and floods. In the last two decades, Indonesia ranked among the top 10 countries in deaths per capita from disasters,” said Dr Opdyke, whose research has focused on post-disaster resettlement programs in South-East Asia.

“Too often though, governments jump to relocate settlements expecting that they can cut disaster losses by just reducing exposure to hazards. We see repeatedly that disasters are often distorted by policy makers for political gain, without truly understanding the drivers of disaster risk.

“Vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, economies, and social systems often have a much larger role to play in disaster risk creation – factors that are rarely solved by starting anew. The scale of the problems facing Jakarta is no doubt pressing, but rather than embracing the seductive simplicity of starting with a blank canvas, we need to recognise the complexities that don’t vanish. While the allure of better planning from a clean slate might be tempting to address current stresses, the reality might look very different.”

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