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Indonesia unveils construction site for new capital

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Ground has been broken on an orange-red lot in the jungles of East Borneo, where the Indonesian government has begun construction of its new capital.

Officials have pledged to build a “sustainable forest city” that puts the environment at the heart of development and aims to be carbon neutral by 2045. But the project has been criticized by conservationists and indigenous communities, who say it will damage the environment, further shrink the habitat of endangered animals such as orangutans, and displace indigenous people who depend on the land for their livelihoods.

Indonesia began building its new capital in mid-2022 after President Joko Widodo announced that Jakarta — the congested, polluted capital that is prone to earthquakes and rapidly sinking into the Java Sea — would withdraw from its capital status.

The plans for the new capital—roughly twice the size of New York City—are grandiose. Officials tout the creation of a future green city centered on forests, parks and food production, harnessing renewable energy, “smart” waste management and green buildings.

“We have to think outside of what’s happening today and try to solve (things) futuristic,” said Bambang Susantono, chairman of the Nusantara National Capital Authority, of the city’s design and ability to meet future challenges.

A digital rendering of the layout of the presidential palace compound in the new capital is shown at a construction site in Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan province, Indonesia, March 8, 2023. (Associated Press)

Digital renderings shared by the government show a city surrounded by forests, with people walking along tree-lined walkways and buildings with vegetated roofs, surrounded by walkways, ponds, clean creeks and lush forests.

The building was inspired by the combination of modern city towers and traditional Indonesian architecture: the garuda-shaped presidential palace – a mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia – and other traditional buildings stylistically directed towards the surrounding indigenous groups A tribute to the Archipelago of Architecture.

In its current state, the new city is far from the tidy effect its planners have presented, but there is progress. Indonesia’s Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono said in February that the city’s infrastructure was 14 percent complete.

Some 7,000 construction workers are clearing, plowing and building the first phase of the site. Worker dormitories, basic roads and helipads have been put into use. Construction of important buildings such as the Presidential Palace is expected to be completed by August 2024.

visited sites Associated Press In early March, piles of freshly turned earth were seen surrounded by excavators and cranes. At least one site has a sign with a QR code that visitors can scan to see a 3D visual of the area when it’s finished; others have printed signs of things to come.

The government says it is trying to consider environmental concerns. Signs of a more conscious approach to construction can be seen: patches of trees are still fenced to protect them from machinery, a nursery has begun the replanting process officials have promised, and industrial forest surrounds the site.

But with construction set to accelerate this year, environmentalists warn that building the metropolis will accelerate deforestation in one of the world’s largest and oldest rainforests.

Known as the lungs of the world, forests absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are home to numerous wildlife. The island is already affected by palm oil plantations and coal mines.

Balikpapan, one of the cities near Indonesia’s planned new capital Nusantara, is seen with the state-owned Pertamina oil refinery in the background, in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan province, Indonesia, March 7, 2023. (Reuters)

Dwi Sawung, an infrastructure expert at the Indonesian Living Environment Forum, an environmental NGO that has been overseeing the new capital project, said the government’s plan lacked consideration for the region’s unique wildlife, such as orangutans and sun bears. The new city runs through an important animal corridor.

“The animals should be relocated first, and then the buildings should be built,” he said. “But because they needed to be quick, they just built the area, without moving the animals first.” Experts also expressed concern about how the new capital would provide power. While the government has vowed that the city will rely on “smart energy” systems, some groups fear that some of the region’s coal-fired power plants may come online in the short term.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, Indonesia has huge energy potential from solar, hydro, geothermal, wind and other sources, but only about 12 percent of it has been tapped. While user-friendly public transport may keep cars off city roads, there will likely be extensive air travel between the new capital and Jakarta, about 1,300 kilometers away.

Indigenous groups who live in the area and have already lost some of their land fear that the urban sprawl of the new capital will make matters worse.

Officials have vowed to respect the rights of Aboriginal people and to compensate those who have lost their homes. Local officials say they will verify all land claims and accept title documentation, but most areas are passed down through families without paperwork, and not all tribal areas are officially recognized.

“We don’t want to relocate. We don’t want them to move our ancestors’ graves, or alter or remove our historic sites,” said Aboriginal community leader Sibukdin the building area.

Indigenous people have “several options to get them involved in the process,” Susantono said, including compensation, relocation or share ownership of the soon-to-be-opened store.

“We will always convince them and tell them about the future of the city,” he said. “Hopefully they will understand that this is for everyone’s benefit.” But construction is moving forward as Indonesia continues to attract investors, with the government planning to inaugurate the city on Aug. 17 next year to coincide with Indonesia’s independence day.

“Nusantara is the city of tomorrow,” said Susan Tono. “It will be a vibrant city, not just a government city.”

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