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Forest capital stirs climate debate in Indonesia

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong and LEONARDUS JEGHO in Jakarta | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-30 09:49

A general view of the city skyline of Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, Oct 30, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

As Indonesia weighs its options to fulfill its climate commitments, it is moving forward with its plan to relocate its capital from Jakarta to the island of Borneo.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Nov 4 that the relocation project would cost $35 billion. The House of Representatives is also expected to pass a law later this year that will allocate budget for the planned relocation in the first half of 2024. The new capital will be built in East Kalimantan Province over 56,000 hectares of land.

Indonesia has pledged to reduce emissions by signing an agreement to end deforestation by 2030 during the United Nations' COP 26 climate meeting in the Scottish city of Glasgow.

Environmental groups have been pondering how to work on Indonesia's commitment to the Paris climate treaty as it is one of Southeast Asia's top greenhouse gas emitters. And moving the capital to East Kalimantan might affect the lush rainforest that has sheltered the endangered Bornean orangutan and the indigenous Dayak communities for years.

Yanuar Nugroho, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the environmental reason was behind Widodo's plan to move the capital. Jakarta's worsening air pollution, frequent flooding and traffic jams make it one of the world's fastest sinking cities, with some estimates suggesting one-third of the city's landmass could be submerged by 2050.

Nugroho said the capital's relocation is bound to have an environmental impact as it will move to a forested area. But he notes that if the Indonesian government wants to fulfill its climate commitment, any form of deforestation has to be compensated with the replanting of trees in other locations that can serve as a carbon sink. "The bigger problem related to climate change in reality is not deforestation-which theoretically can be compensated with reforestation in other locations-but the level of emissions that will be turned out by the new state capital after it comes into operation," he said. "This is a matter that needs to be considered because such emissions will have big impacts on climate change."

Hendricus Andy Simarmata, president of the Indonesian Association of Urban and Regional Planners, said moving the capital will certainly require the clearing of some forest land to give way to urban development. But he said this would be a great opportunity for the Indonesian government to demonstrate that it is capable of building a climate-proof city.

Development principle

"The central government has shown their willingness and commitment to apply a green and sustainable development principle for the new capital planning," Simarmata said. "Of course, as a professional association in urban and regional planning, we will keep giving input for this preparation."

He said the government will need two years to build this new city, from constructing new buildings to developing potable water systems and new roads. He stressed the importance of maintaining the capital as a "green city".

Widodo first announced relocating the capital in an August 2019 speech to parliament. He said the country's capital city "is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation".

Apart from environmental reasons, Widodo said moving the capital will equally distribute the gains of economic development to over 270 million Indonesians residing all across the archipelago.

Jakarta is located in Java, Indonesia's fourth-biggest island and home to more than half of the nation's population. East Kalimantan is located in Borneo, the country's third-biggest island but home to less than 6 percent of the population.

The government is also planning to relocate at least 182,000 civil servants from Jakarta to Kalimantan. This number excludes military and police personnel.

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