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'Save us from this curse': Villagers fear eviction as Indonesia's new capital Nusantara takes form

Channel News Asia - August 31, 2023

Neo Chai Chin and Lewa Pardomuan, East Kalimantan – As Indonesia's future capital, Nusantara, gears up to welcome its first residents in less than a year's time, some nearby villagers are praying they do not get left out in the cold or displaced without compensation.

In the village of Sepaku about 20 kilometres away, farmer Pandi had a rude surprise earlier this year when stakes appeared on his hectare of land. Attached to the stakes were yellow pieces of cloth with the words "development boundary".

"One day, we found boundary markers next to our houses," he said. "Of course, people who live here were shocked."

Without anyone explaining what the markers meant, "we could only guess that this project will evict the settlement here", said Pandi, referring to a dam being built across the Sepaku river, which will supply water to Nusantara.

There has been no discussion on compensation so far, and villagers have shown resistance to the prospect of relocation by displaying banners, said Pandi, 51, a father of four.

Over in Pemaluan village, rubber farmer Jubaen has had the same experience. The building of a toll road connecting Nusantara and Balikpapan could affect his six-hectare plantation, but he knows little else. There has been no talk of compensation either.

"When the new capital city is being developed, then automatically our land that's within its boundary will be taken over," lamented the 58-year-old, whose village is about 13 km from Nusantara. "People who rely on the plantations have no idea what we have to do next."

The environmental impact is another worry; the river the villagers rely on may potentially be affected.

"If (the authorities) want to continue the new capital city's development, please go ahead," Pandi told the programme Insight.

This is a sentiment echoed by some viewers on YouTube who support having the new capital in East Kalimantan and are looking forward to the government's execution of the project as well as its potential.

But Pandi's plea is this: "Please pay attention to us. Please give us clear (legal rights) over the land so that we can pass it on to our next generation."

The first phase of Nusantara – comprising the palace, a few ministries' premises and basic infrastructure such as roads and housing – is expected to be ready by Aug 17, Indonesia's Independence Day, next year.

And equitable development is one of the issues facing the government as it races towards the launch date, with the authorities saying they are aware of the villagers' concerns about compensation and lack of information and will address them.

The entire Nusantara project is scheduled for completion in 2045, when Indonesia celebrates 100 years of independence.

Billed as Indonesia's first carbon-neutral city – 65 per cent of the area will be reforested – Nusantara aims to ease the load on the current capital, Jakarta, a metropolis of 10 million people that is crowded, polluted and sinking in parts.

Critics, however, have highlighted a host of issues, including the lack of consultation and the financial and environmental cost of building Nusantara.

The estimated US$33 billion (S$44.5 billion) needed to build Nusantara should be used instead to rehabilitate cities such as Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya, argued John Muhammad, national presidium member of the Indonesian Green Party.

'We don't want to end up being slaves'

For communities living near the future capital, the lack of information has stoked fears of being short-changed.

"Will we end up being spectators, cleaners and dishwashers?" asked Sibukdin, 60, a community leader of the indigenous Balik people in Sepaku village, in East Kalimantan's Penajam Paser Utara regency.

"Our tribe has this wish: 'Please save us from this curse.' We don't want to end up being slaves."

The Balik people of Sepaku, who consist of nearly 200 families, have lived on their ancestral land "even before the Republic of Indonesia came into being", he declared.

But since the 1970s, the area has seen an influx of migrants from other parts of Indonesia as part of the government's transmigration programme, said Mareta Sari of JATAM (Mining Advocacy Network), a network of non-governmental organisations working on social justice and other issues relating to the mining, oil and gas industries.

"So if you ask how many tribes feel the destructive power of this nation's capital, maybe the first people ... will be the indigenous people," she said.

Sibukdin acknowledged that Nusantara will need skilled workers – "graduates and postgraduates". It would be "impossible" for people in his community to work as civil servants in the new capital as many "don't even finish elementary school".

What the government should do is equip the locals through training, he said.

"We've been told we must be ready to receive our brothers and sisters from Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra and even abroad," said Sibukdin. "Isn't the government's responsibility to make us ready first? That's the right approach. It's about how to make sure that we aren't marginalised in the middle of the new capital. We also want to benefit from its presence."

Nusantara capital authority head makes pledge

The man overseeing Nusantara's birth has pledged to address these issues.

The government wants to see opportunities for the local community in Nusantara's "smart and digital society" in future, and for anyone affected by relocation to end up better off, said Bambang Susantono, chairman of the Nusantara National Capital Authority.

To this end, the authorities are "training, upskilling and reskilling" people in fields such as coding and renewable energy.

"I don't want them ... just watching (the transformation)," said Bambang, who is trained in engineering and infrastructure planning. "I want them to be part of (it)."

As for the social fabric, he felt that conflicts between locals and migrants were "very minimal" now, and he would like to maintain that state of harmony. Many of the migrants have been there for generations, he added.

Disparities must be addressed to avoid potential conflicts, observers noted.

Feelings of "injustice" in indigenous communities may later be reflected in hatred towards migrants, said Siwage Dharma Negara, a senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Ethnic tensions have boiled over before. Violence between the Madurese – originally from Madura Island off the coast of Java – and Dayaks in Central Kalimantan in 2001 resulted in hundreds of deaths.

Unequal access to employment and economic opportunities was identified as one of the underlying causes.

The government must ensure indigenous groups are the "main actor" in Nusantara's development and not merely involved in supporting activities, said Siwage. "Making sure that their livelihood, ... their assets or their rights are protected is important."

Targeting investments

Meanwhile, work continues. The pressure is on Bambang's team to have "some sort of ecosystem", comprising the palace, offices, health care and educational institutions as well as shopping facilities, ready by next Aug 17. Development is on track, he said.

On its projected US$33 billion cost, Bambang reckoned "we're going to go beyond that".

President Joko Widodo has been pitching for investment worldwide. At a forum in Singapore in June, he assured investors their investments would be safe and there would be continuity in the project – even as Indonesians elect a new president next year.

At the same event, Bambang assured attendees their investments would be profitable and cited potential returns of 11 to 13 per cent from investing in the city's power system, Reuters reported.

While the city's eco-friendly image may draw investors, Siwage said Indonesia's "poor track record" may also worry them. "Maybe ... this is the opportunity for Indonesia to showcase that Indonesia is serious about ... the enforcement of sustainable development," he added.

That is part of the "game plan", affirmed Bambang. "With all the international organisations working with us, with a good plan and ... consistency (in) implementation, we do hope ... to be a sustainable forest city."

He is also aware that the new capital should not be a white elephant. His hope is that Nusantara will be "owned by the citizens" and become not only a liveable but also "lovable" city, one step at a time.

From his perch overseeing its construction, he said: "I want to quote Shakespeare: 'What is a city but its people?'"

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/cna-insider/indonesia-capital-nusantara-villagers-indigenous-land-rights-compensation-jobs-373498