Indonesia's current capital, Jakarta, covered in smog. Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

With Jakarta jammed and sinking, the Indonesian government has chosen Borneo as the site of its new capital, which it promises to make a “forest city.”

With its capital Jakarta continuing to sink into the Java Sea, the government of Indonesia has chosen a location to build a new capital from scratch. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced on Monday that the new city will be in the East Kalimantan province, on the lush island of Borneo. While poor urban planning has burdened Jakarta with traffic congestion, overcrowding, and severe air pollution—the worst in Southeast Asia, according to a Greenpeace study—the government promises the new capital will be smarter, cleaner, and greener.

The first phase of the new city will encompass nearly 5,000 acres. Construction of this phase is planned to begin in 2021 and be finished by 2024, according to the news site Mongabay. The entire city, targeted for completion in 2045, will occupy about 495,000 acres of land, two-and-a-half times the size of New York City. The Indonesian government says at least 50 percent will be open green space, with parks and gardens, as well as a zoo and a sports complex, “integrated into the natural landscape such as hilly areas and river systems,” in the words of planning minister Bambang Brodjonegoro.

It’s all part of a grand strategy to make Indonesia’s capital a “forest city”—one that will not only leave Borneo’s protected forests undisturbed, but will also “restore the environment in Kalimantan,” Brodjonegoro said.  

The news comes months after Jokowi—motivated in part by the need to cement his anticipated reelection winvowed to take action on a capital relocation plan that’s been talked about for decades. Jakarta is currently home to 10 million people, and the new capital city is slated to accommodate up to 1.5 million of them, mostly government employees and their families. The island of Borneo and the Kalimantan province had been rumored to be the chosen sites, which naturally has environmentalists concerned.

A helicopter from Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency drops water on a ground fire in West Kalimantan. (Antara Foto/Heribertus/Reuters)

Kalimantan is home to nearly 7 million acres of protected forest and critically endangered orangutans, and the region has been experiencing its own set of environmental challenges. While the rate of forest loss in Indonesia has dropped overall, the province is an exception. In 2018, East Kalimantan lost nearly 1.5 million acres of primary forest, a 42 percent increase in deforestation from the year before, according the World Resource Institute. And the province’s active coal-mining industry, which critics say the government has been too lenient in regulating, has been contributing to the environmental degradation.

As will plans to build a major city in the area. “The government must make sure that the new capital is not built in a conservation or protected area,” Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Jasmine Putri told Agence France-Presse on Monday.

In May, environmental advocate Dwi Sawung of the nonprofit Indonesian Forum for the Environment warned that most of the area’s land is peatland, a type of carbon-rich wetland consisting partially of dead vegetation that is often drained and burned to make way for palm-oil plantations. “[The builders] might need to do preliminary work, like digging and solidifying the peatland, before starting to construct infrastructure for the new capital,” he told the Jakarta Post. That could lead to more fires and air pollution.

One urban-planning expert also told Bloomberg that more deforestation can be expected as Indonesia builds out the new city’s infrastructure. “New roads cutting through forest areas break the continuity of the forest cover and typically more slash and burn deforestation happens in their vicinity,” said Petr Matous, a lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering. That, in turn, will likely lead to more forest fires in a country that’s seen an increase in the number of climate changed-related wildfires in recent weeks.

At the moment, details of the $33 billion plan are scarce, with the Indonesian government providing little information on the master plan or which companies it may work with. Meanwhile, as CityLab has reported before, such an ambitious move will do little to solve Jakarta’s environmental crisis. Even as the city sinks, the population of the Jakarta metropolitan area is expected to grow from 30 million to 35.6 million by 2030.

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