Activists want Indonesia's new capital to prioritise orangutans, dolphins
Just outside Indonesia's planned new capital on Borneo island, a female orangutan catches a banana with one hand, thrown by a conservationist across the river, while she hangs on to a tree branch with the other hand.
She is one of 127 orangutans that the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) is helping to reintroduce into the wild in East Kalimantan's Samboja district. They have already lost their former homes due to deforestation on the island, often linked to the expansion of palm oil and timber plantations as well as coal mining sites.
But the giant apes could face an even bigger threat as Southeast Asia's largest country builds from scratch Nusantara - a new $32 billion city near their natural habitat.
The Indonesian government has promised to protect wildlife and reforest large parts of the project, which has been marketed to investors as a smart, green city of the future, fully powered by renewable energy.
But environmentalists are concerned the construction spanning nearly 260,000 hectares (642,474 acres) will affect some of Borneo's endemic fauna, including endangered ones like the long-nosed monkey, Irrawaddy dolphins, orangutans, and the vulnerable Bornean sun bear.
"The design for the construction of the IKN (Ibu Kota Negara or nation’s capital) does not integrate its development planning with the Balikpapan Bay. One of the concerns is that the Balikpapan Bay will become a giant pond for residue waste from the development and activities of the IKN upstream," Mappaselle, a director with the local environment group Pokja Pesisir told Reuters.
The group estimates some 400 hectares of mangrove forests along the coastline of Balikpapan Bay have already been cleared out to make way for a coal port as well as oil and gas refineries.
Mappaselle fears more could be razed to build a new toll road connecting Nusantara to the nearest city of Balikpapan and a port from where construction materials for the city would be brought in.
The Nusantara Capital City Authority says mangroves would be replanted in other areas and guidelines have been drawn up for workers who may come in contact with wildlife.
Foundations are currently being laid for government buildings, while developers are expected to start construction on homes that 16,000 civil servants, military and police officers will move into next year.
Nusantara will be declared the new capital in the first half of 2024. Key government buildings, including a palace and a presidential office, must be ready by August next year when Indonesia celebrates its 79th independence day.
For now, some conservationists continue to hold out hope that government officials will stay true to their pledge and protect Indonesia's vulnerable animals well into the future.