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The tribe in the path of Indonesia's 'almost impossible' new capital

Sydney Morning Herald - September 15, 2019

James Massola, Amilia Rosa and Karuni Rompies, Balikpapan – When Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced the country's capital city was moving from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, it kicked off fevered speculation about the cost, location and efficacy of such a move.

But for Balik tribal elder Jubaen and his extended family, it raised one central question: would it be a threat to their way of life?

The President, widely known as Jokowi, said the new capital will sit on land in the two districts of North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara, in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

The proposed site – which has not been identified with any precision – is between the two major cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. Those cities already have international airports and seaports and lie on the Makassar Strait.

It's not until you actually visit the (approximate) location of the future capital that you begin to understand just how ambitious the project is – and what could be lost by the arrival of untrammelled development.

Jubaen, who uses just the one name, is the adat (an elected cultural leader) of the Balik people in the village of Pemaluan, which is home to about 150 Balik families. Pemaluan sits within the tract of land earmarked by the President.

Balikpapan, an oil town and sea port of nearly a million people that derives its name from the Balik people, is about 120 kilometres away. It takes more than four hours to reach Pemaluan because of the potholed, dusty roads.

Jubaen told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the Balik tribe – a total of about 800 families are in the area – had left Balikpapan and moved to villages in this part of East Kalimantan after the oil boom began in Balikpapan at the turn of the century.

"We have heard we will quite possibly be pushed out again from our homes," Jubaen says.

"Our village used to be prosperous, we were rich, food was abundant. That was before the big [forestry] companies entered our area in 1968 [under concessions granted by then dictator Soeharto]. Ever since then we have been poorer, now we have to buy food.

"If the capital comes here I don't know how poor we will be. Our communities will slowly disappear."

Jubaen says that each year the tribe gathers to perform traditional dances, hold ceremonies and sing the old songs. Knowledge of their culture is passed house to house and person to person to the next generation. "We are already losing the culture we want to preserve," he adds.

Pemaluan is situated within hundreds of thousands of hectares of dense Kalimantan jungle, a jumble of native forests, land concessions for palm oil and paper plantations, coal mining and small villages.

Plonking a new capital in the middle of this terrain will be no small undertaking. President Jokowi has spoken of his desire for the as-yet-unnamed capital to be not just a green city but a city in the forest too.

The government has suggested about 180,000 hectares – which the state ultimately controls – will be used, though some of it will remain untouched. Ring One of the development, which would include the state palace and government departments, would occupy about 200 hectares and an estimated 40,000 hectares would be used for housing, health and education facilities, museums, technology parks and more.

A 120-kilometre toll road that runs between Samarinda and Balikpapan is due to be completed this year and will play a vital role in linking the new capital to the outside world.

And the price tag? An eye-watering $48.4 billion, with only about 19 per cent of that money to come from the state budget and the rest from public-private partnerships and private sector investment.

A move-in date of 2024 – conveniently, the last year of the President's second and final term – has been set. The scale of the ambitious project is staggering, as is the timeline.

'Jokowiville' gets a mixed reception

While many Indonesians have welcomed the project – the nation has debated moving the capital from polluted, overcrowded Jakarta since its first president, Soekarno, floated the idea in the 1950s – it is not without its critics.

Detailed plans have not been released. Privately, foreign diplomats and senior members of Indonesia's public service and sections of the business community are scathing, too.

Names like "Jokowiville" and "Jokograd" have been floated on social media, gently mocking the President.

One foreign diplomat, who asked not to be named, described the new capital as one of the greatest follies he had ever seen. Members of the Indonesian civil service wryly note that 2024 will be a good year to take early retirement, while members of the business community believe it is unreasonable that they are called on to do so much of the investment.

The project does have its supporters, of course. Andi Harun, a member of East Kalimantan's provincial parliament and the head of the opposition Gerindra party, is an enthusiastic supporter because of the economic opportunities it will unlock.

"This province is one of the richest provinces in Indonesia. We contribute around 500 trillion rupiah [$52 billion] annually from oil and gas production to the state's oil and gas revenue. However, what we receive back from the central government in the form of East Kalimantan's provincial budget allocation is not even 10 per cent of our contribution," he explains.

"As a result, lots of areas in East Kalimantan are underdeveloped. We hope the central government's decision on the relocation of capital city will help improve the economic development of this province."

Ishran Noor, the governor of East Kalimantan, is another enthusiastic supporter of the "incredible" economic impact the new capital will have and recently told Kompas TV locals should prepare for the big development "whether they like it or not".

He's eyeing measures to clamp down on land speculation which has already begun and says forested areas such as Bukit Soeharto (Soeharto Hill), some of which is classified as a protected national park and some of which is being used by forestry companies, will be safeguarded.

"This plan automatically makes [efforts to] revitalise the protected forest area and production forest area... we will not develop or use all of the land... we don't need too big an area for the capital city, only perhaps some 40,000 to 60,000 [hectares]. And we must protect the surrounding forests."

The land speculators have already arrived. Estimates of what non-government-owned land in the area cost before the President's announcement range from 1 million to 30 million rupiah ($100 to $3000) per hectare. Those figures have since skyrocketed.

Rokhayah, a migrant from Java who lives in a small house on the road to Pemaluan, doesn't want the capital to be relocated because "a capital city comes with big-city crime, big-city problems".

"Last week someone offered me 500 million rupiah for my land [1.5 hectares' worth]. I said no, if I sold my land where would I live?" she says.

Jubaen says speculators have already visited Pemaluan offering locals as much as 2.5 million rupiah per hectare – a huge increase in price – but "no one wants to sell".

Environmental concerns

Husain Suwarno from the Balikpapan Bay Care Forum, an environmental group, fears for the impact on the many rivers that run through the area and out to sea.

"The commitment by the government states they will not be using protected forest. Bukit Soeharto is part of a national park so we expect it won't be there," he says.

"The bottom line is I reject the idea, but what can we civilians do when it is already decided, a policy for the greater good? We asked that serious attention is given to the [impact on] Balikpapan Bay and the local people."

Despite the potential obstacles, infrastructure investment in the form of new roads, rail, air and seaports was the hallmark of Jokowi's first term and the President is determined to press ahead.

Announcing his decision, the President said that the current burden on Jakarta – and the island of Java, which is home to 150 million of Indonesia's 260 million people and 58 per cent of its GDP output – as the centre of government, business, finance, trade and services was too heavy.

My fear is that the plans won't be fully realised and that they'll burn the hell of parts of the forest.

He referred only obliquely to the fact that greater Jakarta, home to about 30 million people, is also sinking because of a massive over-reliance on ground water, poor irrigation and climate change.

Parts of North Jakarta have sunk by up to 25 centimetres per year and some areas have been abandoned. Bandung Institute of Technology experts have warned as much as 95 per cent of North Jakarta, home to 1.7 million people, could be underwater by 2050.

Shifting up to 1.5 million people to the new capital won't fix Jakarta's problems.

Luca Tacconi, a professor of environmental governance at the Australian National University who has previously lived in Indonesia, says there are benefits in relocating the capital to East Kalimantan but he questions how sustainable it will actually be, whether business will invest and the "almost impossible" timeline.

"My fear is that the plans won't be fully realised and that they'll burn the hell out of parts of the forest," he says.

"The big question is whether they will get the private sector to put the money in – that's huge, that will determine what is possible in practical terms."

He compares the project to the multi-generational construction of Australia's capital, Canberra.

"It will take a lot of time, if you're moving most of the government administration. It can take decades for a city to become a real fully-fledged city."

Jubaen hopes the president won't forget his people if, or when, the capital vision is realised and that if they have to move, the community will be relocated together.

"If there is no choice and this must be part of the new capital, we ask for compensation for our land and we want a new place to live as a community," he says.

"This is a close-knit community. They don't want the big-city mentality. If I don't have coffee or sugar I just go next door. I'm afraid the capital-city mentality will take over."

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/the-tribe-in-the-path-of-indonesia-s-almost-impossible-new-capital-20190912-p52qu9.html