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Indonesia has a plan for a new capital with a ‘forest city’ called Nusantara. And it’s moving heaven and earth to make it happen.

Getting to Nusantara, Indonesia’s new capital, isn’t easy. After passing through the Manggarai toll gate on the Balikpapan–Samarinda Toll Road, we drive another 45 minutes and exit at Samboja. From there, we travel down a hilly, winding road passing through Bukit Bangkirai, a pristine rain forest area where some of the most endangered primates in the world can still be found. It takes another 1.5 hours to get to Sepaku, the district in which the new capital is located. Getting a signal is difficult. The roads are undulating as we enter the site. It can be slippery and muddy during rainy season – or very dusty and dry, as when I visited in October.

Moving the capital here will require one to move heaven and earth.

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The Indonesian government is moving ahead with its plans to relocate the nation's capital from sinking, overcrowded Jakarta to a new “forest capital” in East Kalimantan province more than 1,000 kilometres away. Christopher Manza/The Globe and Mail

An array of environmental problems in Indonesia’s current capital, Jakarta, prompted the government to announce the plan in 2019. The transition to Nusantara, located in East Kalimantan, will begin as early as 2024 and construction is expected to continue up to 2045, finishing to coincide with the country’s 100th anniversary of independence.

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The name of the new capital is derived from ancient Javanese literature; it is a compound of nusa (island) and antara (in between), and can be loosely translated as “archipelago.” With Nusantara, Indonesia has the opportunity to start a clean slate: Officials want it to be “a smart city in the forest.” But there are serious questions about how the megaproject will affect vegetation, wildlife and people. The costs – estimated at $US34.9 billion – have led some Indonesians to reject the idea entirely.

First photo: The Ciliwung River, which divides Jakarta, is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In the rainy season, the area suffers from frequent, heavy flooding -- one of the main reasons of the relocation of the capital. Second photo: Nusantara, the new capital city of Indonesia, set to be inaugurated in 2024. The land for future city is an industrial forest. Critics have warned the move risks accelerating pollution and contributing to the destruction of rainforests that are home to primates and mammals.

The rush to build

For many people in Indonesia, the move feels rushed. Plans were mobilized during the pandemic, when millions of Indonesians were suffering and coping from loss. The country has yet to stabilize its economy, and in February 2022 a group of economists, former politicians and academics signed a petition to cancel the project, arguing the funds would be better used to handle the health and economic challenges brought on by COVID-19. To date, the petition has amassed 35,638 signatures.

In addition, there are concerns surrounding the legislation: The bill for the new capital city was passed after only 43 days of review. Many deem it unconstitutional and say it does not involve or reflect the people’s voices and needs. All of this is putting pressure on President Joko Widodo. He expects the state palace to be ready by the second quarter of 2024, which means roads and facilities must be built quickly.

Nusantara, the government’s new capital city project, has faced public scrutiny over allegations that businesses and their owners closely linked to government stand to benefit from the relocation to East Kalimantan. The land for the new capital is owned by PT ITCI Hutani Manunggal (IHM) – a private company that provides raw materials for paper.

“The most worrisome aspect is that this land has never actually been planned for a city before,” says Sibarani Sofian, Nusantara’s lead designer. More extensive research of risks in the area needs to be done, he says, along with measures such as soil compaction to reduce the risk of landslides.

“To turn this into a city, it needs time and attention. In the old traditional days, we needed to create rituals, prayers and offerings to nature, to let them know that we are entering and that we would respect Mother Earth. To me, that is important,” Mr. Sofian says. “What we need to be wary of is if we rush and do not listen to the possibility of risks.”

Jakarta, a sinking city

A man finds his car submerged under floodwater in West Jakarta in 2020. The flooding in Jakarta on New Year's Day left 66 dead and an estimated US$69.5 million in damage.

This is not the first time Indonesia’s leaders have discussed the idea of a new capital. In 1957, the country’s first president, Soekarno, proposed the idea of relocating to Palangkaraya, in Central Kalimantan.

The motivation is that Jakarta, home to more than 10 million people, is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world. In some parts of the capital land is subsiding at rates of one to 15 centimetres every year; in others it is up to about 20 to 28 centimetres annually. The cause is primarily groundwater extraction and the load of construction from buildings, malls and apartments, which require highly compressed soil on which to stand. At this rate, Jakarta is predicted to be submerged by 2050.

Flooding is another potent issue, with small and medium-scale floods occurring nearly every year for the past two decades. Significant floods happened in 2002, 2007, 2013, 2015 and 2020, with the most recent causing an estimated loss of US$70-million. According to a survey by the Jakarta government, flooding has killed 144 people over the past 20 years.

Submerged houses in the Puri Indah neighborhood. The flash flooding occurred after an overnight rain dumped nearly 400 millimetres of water.

Lack of understanding among the city’s residents and government about floods and its disaster risk have exacerbated the impacts, leaving many people displaced.

Residents hoist a motorbike from the floodwaters in West Jakarta in 2020.

The Ciliwung River, nicknamed Kali Besar (Big River), is one of the sources of this destruction. The 119-kilometre river is divided into many canals throughout the city, but the intricate water system and other preventive measures are still unable to stop the flooding. Pollution is one of the main factors. Illegal settlements and slums on the Ciliwung’s banks increase the amount of waste thrown into the river. The garbage takes up space, meaning the river cannot hold as much water as intended. And more water is coming to Jakarta, after forests near the Ciliwung’s source in Puncak, West Java, were cleared to make way for settlements. With the forests gone, there are no plants to retain moisture during the rainy season.

The Pluit Reservoir in North Jarkata helps to prevent flooding by holding excess rainwater and water transfer from Ciliwung and Cideng rivers, before pumping the water out to sea.
Heavy machinery dredges mud in the Ciliwung River in anticipation of high water flows during rainy season.

Jakarta is also faced with air quality problems: It is routinely ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The most significant contributors are transportation and industry, along with crippling traffic. More than 20 million registered vehicles are in the capital, of which 80 per cent are motorbikes. Meanwhile, factories use fossil fuels, and coal-fired power plants provide electricity.

Drone footage of the housing compound of Pantai Mutiara, North Jakarta. Pantai Mutiara was considered one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Jakarta before constant flooding over the last 20 years.

The promiseof Nusantara

The land will be subdivided into three development parts: a “central government area” sized 6,671 hectares, a more extensive “capital region” at 56,180 hectares, and a “developmental capital area” of 199,962 hectares. The central government area, where the new state palace will be situated, will be the first segment to be developed.

According to the Indonesian Forum for Environment, much of the land is state-owned, through with at least 154 land concessions with coal mining companies, a pulp-paper company and palm oil plantations (Indonesia is the largest producer and exporter of palm oil worldwide). Ninety-four coal mine pits in the area have not undergone reclamation. All told, a total of 260,000 hectares of industrial forest, consisting of eucalyptus and acacia trees, will be used to build Nusantara.

In constructing a purpose-built capital, Indonesia will be treading a path that others have in the past, including Pakistan, Brazil and Myanmar. The blue survey column pictured here marks the geographic centre for the new city.

The Balikpapan-Samarinda toll road is one of the major pieces of supporting infrastructure for the new capital city.

One of the major infrastructure projects for the new city is the dam of Sepaku–Semoi. The dam will be used to mitigate flood issues in the area, as well as providing access to water. Construction has been delayed by unresolved land disputes.

The Balang Island bridge will allow travel from Balikpapan to the new capital city in just one hour. Conservationists have opposed the project since it began in 2008, fearing it will disrupt marine life and cutoff a crucial wildlife corridor.

Despite the underlying environmental issues, Mr. Widodo vows to adhere to the green commitment and design. On a national radio broadcast in February, he said “revitalization and reforestation” will happen in the first stages of construction to ensure Nusantara meets its aims of being a smart city with zero emissions. Among the key performance indicators are the usage of 80 per cent renewable energy, reliance on 80 per cent public transport, and a reduction of the temperature by two degrees.

‘We are ready to move if we are evicted’

Construction will force many indigenous peoples, such as the Dayak Paser, to leave their homes.

Hamsah, 44, a Dayak Paserese, and his wife Ijum Maryati, 38, live in the last house before the security entrance to the location of Nusantara. They have three patches of land in the region, nearly all of which is used for palm oil. Each month, the couple harvests between 100 and 200 kilograms of palm fruit, which fetch the price of 1,500 rupiah – about 13 cents – a kilogram when sold at a local distributor.

While reluctant to move, Hamsah, Maryati and their eight children are looking to relocate once the capital city is established.

Hamsah and his wife Ijum Maryati are workers for a small, privately-owned palm oil plantation. They also own patches of land in Balikpapan and the Muan River area. Their land and house will br bought and taken over by the state for the new capital city.
Many people who live in the area of the new capital city say they will move, knowing that they won’t be able to compete with the incoming workforce for jobs.

“We are gardeners, and truthfully we didn’t want a city. A city would be an inconvenience for us if we were to expand our gardens. But it’s the President’s wish, and we need to move forward as a country, so we are ready to move if we are evicted,” Maryati says.

Behind their home are rows of wooden houses filled with low-income families. There is growing uncertainty for the people who occupy this area. In a letter from the Indonesian government regarding the termination of their tenancy, there is no time frame as to when they will be forced to leave and no indication of where they are going to be moved to.

Megawati, 45, lives in a home here with her husband, Duansa, 43. “It’s hard to find work now, and it would be even harder when the capital city is here,” she says. “We can’t fight. We are poor, and we don’t get any additional support from the government.”

She is against Nusantara, and believes a new capital is not needed.

“Jobs are hard, and we have no capital to start any business.”

Designing a new capital

Sibarani Sofian is the lead designer of the Nusantara project. “Our concept goes beyond just simply building," he says. "One of the key parameters is diversity. Not only biodiversity, but also diversity of society."

Sibarani Sofian, architect and owner of design firm URBAN+ based in West Jakarta, is the project’s lead designer. His environment-focused design, called Nagara Rimba Nusa – which translates as “State, Forest, Islands” – was chosen from 255 domestic and international entries in 2019.

“We hope the capital city will become a role model for other cities in Indonesia. The dream is that. We want to be the model for forest-inspired cities. To show the world that we can make a city that is out of the box that will tackle all issues of climate change,” Mr. Sofian says. “The biggest challenge for us is how to put a manufactured city in a natural setting in the most respectful way. Because when we build cities, design cities, we already start to move away so much from the wisdom of the land, the wisdom of nature. You need to really represent how humans relate to nature in this renewed relationship. The city right now we’re living in – Jakarta – doesn’t have that kind of balance.”

The design shows Garuda – the national emblem of Indonesia – as the centre piece. The construction of the building will predominantly be made of copper, aluminum, and stainless steel.

Nyoman Nuarta is a prominent art figure in Indonesia and was part of the New Art Movement in the 1970s. Throughout his career, he has been prolific in creating large iconic sculptures in several cities throughout the country, as well as internationally. For Nusantara, he was hired to design a structure that would become a showpiece of the planned state palace complex.

The palace, which is estimated to cost US$104-million, will become Indonesia’s most expensive state building – and one of the largest state complexes on record. The most distinctive part of the design will be a copper structure in the shape of a garuda, a national symbol of Indonesia.

During my visit to Mr. Nuarta’s workshop in October, a polyester resin model of the new palace was set on a table next to a statue of Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president. Nearby, copper blade structures, smaller versions of those that will be used to control the building’s airflow, were being put through trials.

Nyoman Nuarta, 70, a Balinese sculptor, won a competition to design the presidential state palace for the new capital city of Nusantara. He has been criticized for not following the traditional colonial design of state palaces, but he says he wants to decolonize the design of the building.

“I hope this will become an icon, a unique building out of the ordinary,” Mr. Nuarta says. “It’s an architectural sculpture. It functions, but also we can find our dignity from its aesthetics. It represents 260 million Indonesian population. So it’s not only for beauty or for comfort but also for our dignity as a sovereign nation. I hope it can raise our spirits.”

Like the new capital city, the palace is being designed with sustainability in mind.

“To adhere to the green design, the easiest thing to do is to plant as many trees as possible. The equator passes through the capital city, and people say the trees on the equator grow 10 times faster than land with four seasons. … My hope is that in one, two years max, everything in the capital will be green.”

A video showing the latest rendering of the new Presidential State Palace and the State Palace Area. The area is being expanding after Indonesian President Joko Widodo demanded more greenery and a botanical garden.

Sofian says his concept goes beyond simply building. You need to really represent how humans relate to nature in this renewed relationship. The city right now we’re living in – Jakarta – doesn’t have that kind of balance.

Mr. Sofian’s vision is to “build the forest first before building the city”; only 30 per cent of land space will be converted into buildings and offices.

“When we began to plan, we chose the area where we saw the area was already being disturbed. We didn’t want to change the virgin forest into an urban area.”

If you build it, will they come?

One of Nusantara’s goals is to disperse the concentrated population in Jakarta and Java. Greater Jakarta, known locally as Jabodetabek, is the most populous metropolitan area in Indonesia and the second-most populous urban area in the world after Tokyo, with a total population of 31,240,709 in 2020. Economic disparity is starkly visible: While Central Jakarta is filled with skyscrapers, many slums are found in the suburbs. According to Statistics Indonesia, the poverty rate in Jakarta as of July 2021 was at 4.72 per cent, the highest in 20 years.

The key is to avoid the five top problems of Jakarta: flooding, sinking, pollution, inequality and traffic. Mr. Sofian believes that his design caters to that vision, but he acknowledges that people must have an incentive to move.

Crowds gather to play by the sea near Waladuna Mosque in North Jakarta. The mosque has been inundated by coastal floods since 2000 and is now derelict as sea water floods into the structure. Waladuna Mosque in Muara Baru, North Jakarta, is irrefutable proof of the seawater encroachment into Jakarta. The mosque was built in 1996 and has been affected by coastal floods since 2000. The mosque was frequently used by local residents and people working around the area.

“The mystery is always how to start,” he says. “Our concept goes beyond just simply building. One of the key parameters … is diversity, not only in biodiversity but also diversity of the society. You don’t just allow government officials to be there. If all government officials occupy the space, then it will become a government city.”

It needs to be a functional design, Mr. Sofian says. “That you cannot rush. You need the businesses to take on course.”

He adds: “We have the chance to plan this from scratch. Jakarta never had that chance.”

By relocating the capital, the government also hopes to redistribute wealth. The entire relocation process is scheduled to be completed by 2045.

About the photography

Joshua Irwandi

Joshua Irwandi is a documentary photographer represented by VII Mentorship Program, a National Geographic Explorer, and a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Irwandi is currently located in the Asmat region of Papua. His work focuses on changing landscapes, environment and identities.


Credits

  • Writing and photography by Joshua Irwandi
  • Photo editing by Clare Vander Meersch
  • Interactive design and development by Christopher Manza
  • Editing by Ryan MacDonald and Domini Clark

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