EAST KALIMANTAN, Indonesia -- A tower inside the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary offers a panorama of over 4,000 acres of dense tropical forest packed with slender sengon trees that poke out of the jungle canopy over a smattering of sugar palm, bamboo and rambutan trees bursting with bright red fruit.
Rapid deforestation in this rugged corner of Borneo has diminished vistas such as these, shrinking habitats for wildlife including orangutans, Sumatran rhinos and proboscis monkeys--named for their halting elongated noses--animals that can rarely be found elsewhere in the world.
The culprits behind the shrinking forests have long been the same: the coal, palm oil and timber industries, to name a few. But the region is now facing something entirely unexpected. Indonesia’s president has picked the remote province of East Kalimantan to build a new capital from scratch to replace Jakarta.
The proposal, so outlandish that few believed President Joko Widodo was serious when he first floated the idea four years ago, would be like relocating the White House, the Capitol Building and hundreds of thousands of federal workers to an island backwater 800 miles away that, until this year, never had a major highway.
WHY IS THE CAPITAL BEING RELOCATED?
Jokowi, as Widodo is better known, said the move was necessary to unburden Jakarta, a sinking city of 10 million shrouded in smog and paralysed by relentless congestion. Shifting the capital east, he said, would help even out Indonesia’s development, which is overwhelmingly concentrated on the island of Java where Jakarta and its sprawling suburbs command the nation’s attention.
The plan, still greeted with widespread skepticism, embodies the infrastructure-heavy, nation-building aspirations of the Jokowi era in a country that perpetually underwhelms on the world stage despite its size and wealth of resources.
Fears now abound that the relocation of the nation’s capital will result in the trading of one environmental mess in Jakarta for another in Borneo.
The government has tried to placate concerns with such buzzwords as “green city, “ “smart city “ and “sustainable city “ to describe the project--though detailed plans won’t emerge until next year.
IT’S ALL ABOUT NEW BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
Meanwhile, East Kalimantan’s governor, Isran Noor, said told a newspaper that the relocation plan would usher in a new age for economic activity in the province of 3.7 million.
“We will do more of everything, “ he said. “Mining, gas, oil, coal, maybe forestry, plantations, fisheries and so on.”
EAST KALIMANTAN: WHAT DOES IT HAVE?
The changes couldn’t come to a more storied region of Indonesia. East Kalimantan serves as a gateway to Borneo’s mythical jungles, the backdrop to Joseph Conrad novels and home to the native Dayak tribes once feared for headhunting.
Sitting north of the Pacific “Ring of Fire, “ the province isn’t prone to the natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis that afflict other parts of Indonesia. The same can’t be said for man-made disasters.
Stories abound of fatal falls and drownings in abandoned coal pits. Underground coal fires have been known to smolder for years. And slash-and-burn deforestation has fanned toxic air pollution that’s contributed to respiratory diseases and premature deaths.
In recent weeks, raging fires exacerbated by drought have rekindled memories of 2015 when haze from Borneo and Sumatra drifted beyond Indonesia to blanket parts of Singapore and Malaysia, which shares the northern third of Borneo with Indonesia and the tiny nation of Brunei.
WHAT ABOUT THE ORANGUTANS?
Environmental advocates say a new capital could invite excessive development, further straining a province that increased its rate of deforestation last year at a time when the national rate declined.
“I’m not worried about the capital, “ said Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. “I’m worried about everything they’re going to build around the capital.”
Sihite’s organization operates the Samboja Lestari sanctuary, a home for orangutans and sun bears, the world’s smallest species of bears.
The endangered orangutans, many of which are rescued after losing their habitats or being abandoned after being kept as pets, are taught how to forage for food, traverse jungle treetops and identify threats including poisonous snakes, so they can be reintroduced into the wild. Suitable land for their return is getting harder to find. The sanctuary itself comprises replanted trees, not primary forest.
In the last 50 years, Indonesia has lost 285, 700 square miles of rainforest, according to Greenpeace, an area larger than the size of Texas. Like the Amazon, its shrinking mass has consequences for global CO2 levels.
A moratorium on clearing primary forest and carbon-rich peatlands for activities such as palm oil planting and logging has proved ineffective because of lax enforcement. Additionally, millions of acres aren’t beholden to the rule because permits to clear the land were granted before the first moratorium was declared in 2011.
“The focus of the current administration is economic development, “ said Arief Wijaya, senior manager for climate and forests at the World Resources Institute Indonesia. “The environment is a much lower priority.”
ARE INDONESIANS HAPPY ABOUT THE MOVE?
In Jakarta, residents are scratching their heads about the project. A recent survey by KedaiKopi, a public opinion research firm, showed that 95.7 % of the city’s inhabitants opposed the move.
“It’s nonsense, “ said Pety, a 61-year-old cake business owner and Jakarta native. “Jakarta is not a good place to live anymore. The government should focus on improving the situation here.”
They’ve been trying.
Earlier this year, Indonesia said it would spend $40 billion to improve infrastructure and transportation in Jakarta, ranked by at least one index as having the seventh-worst traffic in the world. The city unveiled its first subway line in March.
Depletion of groundwater has led to massive subsidence. About 40 % of the city of 10 million now lies under sea level with some neighborhoods sinking 7 inches a year. The government is now building a giant sea wall in Jakarta Bay, which has been criticized for ignoring coastal erosion and blocking access to the sea for fishermen. Environmental experts say the only genuine solution would be to replenish groundwater with a newly built reservoir.
In a coastal neighborhood in the city, a graffitied concrete wall less than a foot thick holds back the murky bay. On the other side, water splashes against a now submerged mosque that used to fill with workers from the surrounding seafood packing businesses. Water seeps through a small crack in the base of the wall like a forgotten faucet left on.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to hold, “ said Ani, 63, a mother of two who runs a nearby snack stall balancing on stilts over a ditch filled with fetid green water. “Hopefully, a long time.”
Los Angeles Times