Basten Gokkon, Balikpapan/Jakarta – A clearing for the ramp to a new toll road in the Indonesian Bornean city of Balikpapan gapes open on the side of a paved highway as big trucks rumble past.
Farther down this passage that's been bulldozed through a forested area on the Balikpapan Bay coast, the sound of excavators grows louder. Construction workers are cutting down trees and shunting them to the side, uncovering the soft, reddish soil, while others rest at a makeshift hut.
The broad pathway leads to a high ground clearing with a view over the coast and the bay below. Here, a temporary office has been erected, with a handful of banners put up explaining what this ongoing construction represents.
The toll road is being built as part of the development of Indonesia's new capital city, Nusantara, here in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. But experts warn that the road threatens the integrity of a protected riverside forest and the coastal mangroves and marine ecosystem that it borders.
When Mongabay visited the area in October 2022, clearing for the road hadn't been completed yet. It ended at rows of thick, towering trees. But the latest satellite images reviewed by Mongabay show that the planned road has, in just a few months, cut through the coastal forests to reach a recently completed bridge from Balikpapan. In the process, the road has passed into the buffer zone of the protected Sungai Wain Forest and grazes the forest itself.
Home to nearly 700,000 people, the industrial port city of Balikpapan is a gateway to the new capital, and is particularly important for bringing in the labor and supplies needed to build it. Nusantara's prospective downtown sits just 33 kilometers (20 miles) in a straight line from Balikpapan, but the drive there currently takes up to three hours, hence the need for a road connecting the two cities.
Starting at the port in Balikpapan, the road runs to the bridge that crosses the bay via the mangrove-rich Balang Island, eliminating the need for a long drive along the shoreline.
The project, led by state-controlled construction company PT Wijaya Karya and dubbed the IKN toll road, will run 13 km (8 mi), fringing the southwest and northwest of the 10,025-hectare (24,772-acre) Sungai Wain protected forest. The forest is home to old-growth Dipterocarp rainforest and some of the world's most threatened wildlife. The integrated ecosystem between the riparian protected forest, the coastal zone and Balikpapan Bay is crucial to the survival of many species, such as the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), and sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), the mascot of Balikpapan.
The completion of the new road threatens to sever the forest connection between the terrestrial and marine ecosystems of Sungai Wain and Balikpapan Bay, says Agusdin, a manager at the nonprofit Pro Natura Foundation, which has been tasked by the provincial government of East Kalimantan with managing conservation efforts for the Sungai Wain protected forest.
"It will become a huge challenge for the Sungai Wain protected forest to serve its ecological functions for the wildlife and local people with this development of the Nusantara toll road," Agusdin tells Mongabay.
Experts say each of these ecosystems, all with high conservation value, have for generations supported the livelihoods of the local people as a source of freshwater, clean air, and livelihood, especially for fishing households. In addition, state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina has for decades relied on the freshwater of Sungai Wain for the operation of its key refinery in Balikpapan.
Agusdin and other experts interviewed by Mongabay agree that cutting off the ecological connectivity between the protected forest, the coast and the bay would be disastrous for the wildlife, human communities, and economic activities that depend on them.
Mongabay sought comment from local officials in East Kalimantan and representatives of Pertamina, but they didn't respond by the time this article was published.
The idea of a road linking the Balikpapan seaport and bridge surfaced as part of a 2008 plan to improve connectivity between Balikpapan and other parts of Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. The ultimate aim is to link the city with the Trans-Kalimantan highway, which continues to expand and will eventually link up to Malaysian Borneo.
However, the development of the Balang bridge access road has for years been stymied by the unwavering efforts of local activists and foreign scientists who worked together to protect the Sungai Wain and Balikpapan Bay ecosystems and against the project over its potential "ecological disaster."
"I think the coastal communities and fishers will be the most disadvantaged by the development of this toll road due to the subsequent sedimentation piling up in Balikpapan Bay and the rivers, making the water murky and depleting the resources of the marine ecosystem," says Husen Suwarno, advocacy coordinator for local green group Balikpapan Bay Concerned Forum (FPTB).
"This [Balang bridge road] project had been suspended for many, many years, [but] it has been revived with the plan to build the new capital city," says Stanislav Lhota, a primatologist at the Czech University of Life Sciences, who has done years of research on the rainforests of East Kalimantan.
In August 2019, President Joko Widodo announced that the sleepy subdistrict of Sepaku, in North Penajam Paser district, would become the core zone of Indonesia's new capital city, Nusantara. Much of Sepaku is currently covered by expiring logging concessions and human settlements, but its coastline along Balikpapan Bay is still mostly blanketed by thick mangroves.
In early 2021, the full span of the Balang Island bridge was completed, but it remained disconnected from the rest of the region. In late 2022, Lhota says, a toll road skirting the southwest and northwest of Sungai Wain was announced. He says the road appeared to follow the general route designed in 2008, except that the new plan put the road closer to the protected forest, while the previous one ran closer to the mangrove area.
"Nobody explained why it happened, but I think it happened because of land speculation," Lhota tells Mongabay. "There were some protests over land ownership and the solution was to abandon the [previous] road, and build a new one which is close to Sungai Wain.
"That is my understanding," he adds, "primarily because of land speculators, to avoid payment."
The area surrounding Sungai Wain was never known to be home to any Indigenous communities or to have any traditional farming activities by local peoples, Husen says. Yet claims for compensation have now sprung up.
"Because of the planned access road, some people have immediately started making claims on the lands there," Husen tells Mongabay. "Before these projects began, it was a jungle that we'd call a primary forest, where nobody had ever farmed."
During Mongabay's visit to the area, some signs were visible along the cleared route staking claim to hundreds of hectares of previously uninhabited forest. Husen's group has tried to look into these claims more closely but hasn't been able to clearly identify the actors behind them. He suggests, however, that the claimants must be powerful individuals, or people close to them, to publicly make these land ownership claims.
A forest island
As the new capital city continues to take shape, experts have predicted that more supporting road infrastructure like this will emerge across East Kalimantan, and especially around Balikpapan. In the process, forests like Sungai Wain will become ever more fragmented, and wildlife habitat ever more disintegrated from the rest of the ecosystem.
Like forested areas across much of Kalimantan, the Sungai Wain protected forest has historically been threatened and degraded by wildfires, illegal logging and poaching. This damage was mostly concentrated along the northern and southern boundaries of the area, according to Graham Usher, a landscape protection specialist who has worked on natural resources conservation projects in East Kalimantan since 2000.
The western side of the protected forest was regarded as relatively safe, even though some of it burned in the fires of 1997-1998, Usher says. With increased efforts to keep fires out of the area, those burned sites have since regenerated and sightings of wildlife crossing these forests have been recorded, he adds.
"Now, that is starting to change a bit as we're starting to see more and more people access along the new road development on the western side," Usher tells Mongabay. "So, Sungai Wain is increasingly becoming an island."
Usher also raises a particular concern regarding the advance of the new toll road's construction: that it indicates a rush by the administration of President Widodo, who leaves office next year.
"There has in the past been a mindset [of] the more land you open up, the more road you can build, the better, because traditionally when the forest just seems pretty limitless, when there seems to be no end to it, they would say the more land we open up, the better for the society, the more development, the better," Usher says. "But of course, now you're getting to the point where forests are becoming just islands in the interior."
Usher says it would be devastating for a complex lowland tropical rainforest such as Sungai Wain to be quickly destroyed by reckless development.
"You have more species of trees in one hectare in Sungai Wain than all of the native trees you can find in the whole United Kingdom," he says. "So this tropical ecosystem is just unbelievably complex, and once it's gone, you can't recreate it. It takes a lifetime for it to grow back."
President Widodo has promised that the new city's development will have a minimal environmental footprint, but observers say the construction of the new toll road to support Nusantara belies any claims of green and sustainable development for the so-called forest city.
"I see this ongoing new capital development starting to become an ecocide or mass destruction of the ecosystem in it, especially in Balikpapan," Husen says.
The provincial road development agency says the Balang Island bridge and its supporting infrastructure should be fully operational and ready to serve the construction of Nusantara in 2024. But as the new toll road is still far from completion, observers say they hope the government will ensure that the ecosystems of Sungai Wain, the coastal zone and Balikpapan Bay remain connected for the wildlife living in the area.
Husen says he's seen plans for measures by officials from the public works ministry that include a design for a wildlife corridor to sustain the connectivity between the Sungai Wain protected forest, the coastal zone and Balikpapan Bay. However, he says these measures have so far failed to be implemented on the ground, with the cleared route already razing the key wildlife corridors, including those planned by the government. He adds this could also be a result of miscommunication between the government and the contractors building the road.
Mongabay sought comment about the land ownership claims to the head of the national road development agency in East Kalimantan, but he didn't respond by the time this article was published.
"Up to this second, we still haven't seen any real investor coming in to help the new capital development project," Husen says. "That's because the world is highly concerned about the climate crisis and environmental damages. This toll road construction gives a bad image for the new capital development."
[Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.]