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Revenge of the jungle – Indonesia’s new capital unloved and unfunded

by Duncan Graham | Dec 4, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Indonesia’s biggest-ever civil engineering project deep in Borneo’s equatorial jungle is under threat. So is outgoing President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s can-do reputation and national pride. Duncan Graham reports.

The project should supposedly address a serious social and environmental problem. The need to take the weight off stinking, sinking Jakarta is real and pressing. But Jokowi’s relocation solution is economically flawed, environmentally dangerous and probably doomed. Good idea, lousy planning, bad place.

The 250,000-hectare construction site of the Republic’s new Ibu Kota (capital) Nusantara (IKN) is the president’s conceit. The name is old Javanese for the archipelago.

The provisional budget is US$35 billion. Ironically, this is the sum allegedly stolen from the nation’s public purse by second president Soeharto during his 32-year kleptocracy (1966-98). The money has never been recovered.

International investors needed

Indonesia already owes China more than US$22 billion for earlier infrastructure projects.

Work on IKN is being driven using domestic funds needed for health, education and other national services. The maximum ‘public investment’ is 20 per cent.

After 18 months of crowing optimism, Jokowi has now confessed he’s so far attracted no international investors. Without their cash, the creek supplying contractors and 10,000 workers now on site will run dry.

Unpacking the president’s mien: just how successful was Jokowi’s visit to Australia?

Then the fecund vines will strangle the half-built pillars, choke the drains and smother all that’s human-made – the fate of Java’s Buddhist and Hindu temples abandoned five centuries ago when Islam arrived.

That’s the prediction and hope of Saiduani Nyuk, head of the Kalimantan Indigenous People’s Alliance (AMAN), representing 77 communities claiming they’re threatened by the development.

‘There’s no clarity or communication, but plenty of intimidation.’ he told MWM.

The money isn’t there and it probably won’t be found because the government is in debt.

They came, they saw, they left

All signals for IKN looked green when Japan’s Softbank reportedly talked of a US$100 billion loan. That road hit a dead end in March 2022.

A reported 130 lenders from Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and the UAE have looked – and done U-turns, wondering how to make a buck on grandeur.  If any Australian or other Western bankers have been escorted through the site’s mud to imagine money trees flowering, their presence hasn’t been noticed.

Their fears would include having to grease palms and fall foul of local and Australian law. Graft runs rife in Indonesia, now even allegedly infecting the government’s Corruption Eradication Commission watchdog.

IKN boss and former banker Bambang Susantono claimed 13 UN agencies have expressed support. Maybe, but they’re not the elusive foreign investors Jokowi has failed to snare.

The theory endorsed by Saiduani and others is that potential investors will keep their wallets closed until the 14 February Presidential election results are finalised.

After two five-year terms, the popular Jokowi is constitutionally barred from staying on. While the three top candidates for his job say they’ll maintain their predecessor’s dream.

If Jokowi can’t raise the funds, what chance will his less enthusiastic successors have?

Indonesian elections: the making of a dynasty and unmaking of democracy?

First stage development

On a trip to the US in November Jokowi (who graduated in forestry) said Nusantara will be ‘a smart forest city concept, a modern and environmentally friendly city’ with 70 per cent of land in ‘green areas, which is envisioned to be a heterogeneous forest emulating a rainforest.’

This is how it was before bulldozers and chainsaws arrived last century in a Jakarta-driven burst of ‘development.’

The first stage inauguration is scheduled for National Day (17 August) next year with around 60,000 government employees moving in during the following months. Eventually two million are expected, a fifth of Jakarta’s population.

IKN starts with ‘Ground Zero,’ incautiously named by someone who forgot 9/11.

The solution to Jakarta’s overcrowding?

Jakarta defines overcrowding. The Jabodetabet zone around the current capital has more people than Australia.

But it’s the political, economic, manufacturing, and power centre of the world’s fourth most populous nation, and it is accessible from anywhere in Java. IKN, on the other hand, can only be reached by air or sea from Java, making the higher cost of living another deterrent.

Nusantara is more than a three-hour grind from the scruffy East Kalimantan entry-point Samarinda, through an environmentalist’s horror trip of oil palm plantations.

The next nightmare for the climate-conscious is the 1,000 km long Mahakam River carrying convoys of over-laden barges of thermal coal supplying much of the world’s needs.

Indonesian coal barge

Image by Erlinawati Graham

And on arrival, the bland visitors’ display is marred by the stench from clogged public toilets and broken walkways. Disabled unwelcome. ‘Green and modern’ doesn’t include health and safety.

These are more than nit-picks. If there’s no attention to detail now, how will it look later?

The work is mainly earth-moving. Jakarta-style dust is choking from the trucks, bashing the roads to rubble.

That’s provided they can keep moving. Queues form on the roads outside dry bowsers. At one closed station, 85 trucks stood idle. Locals say diesel droughts have been a problem for years, yet refined palm oil can be used as a biofuel.

Construction is patchy, though a dam across the Sepaku River is well ahead to the distress of around 300 local villagers.

A Tale of Two Cities – Jakarta is sinking, but funding for Indonesia’s new capital has yet to surface

Locals being displaced

‘We don’t know what’s happening’, said Sibukdin, leader of the indigenous Suku Balik people.

People from IKN tell us to leave the land we’ve owned for centuries and challenge them in court if unhappy. But costs are high and the government always wins.

So the villagers are pushing their plight internationally hoping caring countries will tell IKN to leave them alone.

Earlier this year activist Hairudin Alexander from AMAN presented the Sepaku concerns to a UN Human Rights session in Geneva on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

He told the committee that forced removal would destroy the ethnic group’s identity. Their language and culture are separate from the general Dayak population.

Opposition to the new city by environmental and social organisations has also been ignored. Likewise, this writer requests briefings and interviews.

Academics have been getting the same treatment according to Mulawarman University anthropologist Martinus Nanang.

‘My colleagues and I asked for all reports and surveys but we’ve never seen them,’ he said. ‘We fear many decisions are being made without research.

They’re afraid of the reaction by global environmentalists.

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s desperation is getting more obvious. This month, he reportedly said the project was open to local investors, as though they’d been excluded. “‘I have ordered the Head of the IKN Authority to restrain investors from abroad and give them a chance.”

No need for government-ordered restraint – the capitalists are doing that themselves.

Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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