How Indonesia's new capital is driving indigenous people out of their land


As plans by Indonesia's president to build a $32 billion new capital city on Borneo island slowly start to take shape, villagers who belong to the indigenous Balik tribe have seen a rapid transformation in their once sleepy forest backwater.

What was once the tribe's ancestral farmland has now been invaded by heavy equipment that is driving piling works round-the-clock and building a new intake dam for the capital.

Four years after President Joko Widodo announced plans for the new capital named Nusantara, a site spanning nearly 260,000 hectares (642,474 acres), construction is picking up pace in its central area. But this also means the people of the Balik tribe could be driven out of their ancestral land and forced to relocate.

The chief of the Balik tribe who goes by the name Sibukdin says many among his indigenous community are refusing to move because they feel the land is their identity. Many Balik people also do not have proper documents for their land, which reduces leverage during negotiations with the government.

How Indonesia\'s new capital is driving indigenous people out of their land

"There is a large forest area there (in the new capital’s construction area) which used to be arable land and the livelihood of our people," the 60-year-old said, adding that in principle his people were not against the project.

"We are not hoping that it will be given back to us, but please do not disturb what we are left with, where we have been living for years... we can't let this be taken too," said Sibukdin.

Bambang Susantono, chairman of the Nusantara National Capital Authority, said he hoped the indigenous community will be persuaded that the development is about "the future of the city" and "for the sake of everybody".

The ambitious project has been touted as a green and smart city, built on a largely forested area that is interspersed with logging concessions, plantations, coal mines and villages. But Nusantara has been hit by delays due to the pandemic.

However, Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, has been adamant that his flagship plan to replace the current capital Jakarta – a city that is rapidly sinking more than 15cm per year due to severe flooding and the massive extraction of groundwater from aquifers underneath the city – is needed to spur economic growth outside Java in less developed parts of Southeast Asia's largest economy.

This prospect of future growth has driven speculation, with land prices in areas near a water reservoir having risen over 16-fold, a local village leader told Reuters.

Balik tribe member Yati Dahlia, 32, who lives in the area has been trying to purchase land nearby, as government buildings are due to be built on the land where her current home sits.

But soaring prices have meant a similar plot size located just outside central Nusantara will cost her between 700 million rupiah to 1.2 billion rupiah (approximately $45,500 to $78,000), more than 10 times the government compensation she received for her small plot of land and a blue plywood shack where she now sells food.

Yati is also worried that her husband, a farmer, will not be able to find work as he does not have the skills needed in the new capital.

"We feel like (the government) is killing us slowly," said Yati.

Nusantara will be declared the new capital in the first half of next year. Key government buildings, including a palace and a presidential office, must be ready by August 2024, when Indonesia celebrates its 79th independence day. More than 16,000 civil servants, police and military officers are set to move there from Jakarta.