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New Indonesia capital: Indigenous tribes fear further marginalisation

New Indonesia capital: Indigenous tribes fear further marginalisation

A sign welcoming visitors to the new capital of Indonesia has been put up at Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan, in this photo taken in September 2019. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

PENAJAM PASER UTARA, East Kalimantan: Long before Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that the country’s capital will move from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, Mr Eko Supriadi knew that his sleepy hometown will one day play an important role in the country. 

The traditional youth leader of Penajam Paser Utara district said the elders in his community were not surprised at all when Mr Widodo said the capital will soon sit on part of the district – and part of neighbouring Kutai Kartanegara district – because of a local prophecy.

“Legend has it that there will come a day when Paser will be filled with people, so the relocation is destined to happen,” Mr Supriadi, 32, told CNA.

Penajam Paser Utara district currently has a population of about 160,000 people, a sharp contrast to the 10 million in Jakarta on Java island.

Thousands of Paser Balik and Dayak people live in the district. While some anthropologists categorise them as one group, they identify themselves as two distinctive tribes.

The neighbourhood of indigenous Paser Balik tribe in Penajam Paser Utara. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

READ: Indonesian president announces site of new capital on Borneo island

Like many other indigenous people, Mr Supriadi said he welcomed the plan to move the capital to East Kalimantan, but has reservations about whether the government has plans to protect the existence of the indigenous people.

East Kalimantan Governor Isran Noor, however, said the government would not neglect the indigenous communities.

Similarly, he also gave his assurance that the environment would be protected when the new capital is being built in the lush province.  

READ: Indonesia pledges US$40 billion to modernise Jakarta ahead of new capital: Minister


From the early days of Indonesia’s independence in 1945 until the fall of second president Soeharto in 1998, the government had made transmigration – moving people in densely populated Java to less populated parts of the archipelago – a priority.

Resource-rich East Kalimantan was a popular destination, with about one million transmigrants out of the 3.5 million population, according to a 2010 census.

"Many of our lands were given to the transmigrants. They got houses and living expenses, while we local people did not get anything," said Mdm Helena, who is the head of the Dayak Customary Council and a civil servant at Penajam Paser Utara regent office. 

She said the indigenous community fears being sidelined with the new development.  

“We, the indigenous people, tend to be submissive. Since the beginning we were too nice, and now we realise if we continue to be like this, we’ll be further marginalised." 

Addressing their concerns, governor Mr Isran promised to take their views into account as “a meaningful input for the government”.

"They won't be marginalised. They need to develop their capabilities, so they can participate in building the country," he told CNA.

Despite so, head of Paser Balik tribe Mr Sikbukdin remained sceptical. 

The 56-year-old claimed the tribe people were marginalised when schools were built closer to the transmigrants’ homes, but nowhere near the forest where they live, depriving them of educational opportunities.

Head of Paser Balik tribe Mr Sikbukdin. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

He said he never went to school because there was none in the area where he grew up, but learned to read and write on his own.

Fearing that the new capital will force them to move further away from development, Mr Sikbukdin, who earns a living by farming, wants the government to protect the rights of the indigenous people.

“They don’t pay attention to us. They would rather worry about the orangutans, where the orangutans should be placed, and allocating land for one (orangutan). Perhaps they think we are inferior to those animals,” Mr Sikbukdin said.


Meanwhile, the capital’s relocation plan has also raised questions about its impact on the environment and wildlife in the province.

Environmentalists fear that forests in East Kalimantan will disappear along with the capital relocation. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

There are currently 130 orangutans in a rehabilitation centre in Samboja, Kutai Kartanegara, which will eventually be released back into the wild.  

Environmentalists fear that the forests - the habitat of the orangutans - will disappear along with the relocation.

READ: Indonesia's toxic haze affecting Borneo's orangutans: Rescuers

While East Kalimantan is largely not affected by the yearly haze, this year it has forced the airport in the provincial capital of Samarinda to be closed.

This also raised questions about the new capital’s accessibility, as Jakarta has never experienced airport closure due to haze.

Environmental non-governmental organisation WALHI was worried that nearby Balikpapan, a developed oil city which lies about 50 km away from the yet to be named new capital, will have a water crisis because the river flow will be impeded by the development of the new capital.

Environmentalists are concerned that the capital's relocation to East Kalimantan will harm the Balikpapan Bay and its coastal communities. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

Coastal communities that are dependent on marine and fishery resources in Balikpapan Bay might also be affected, it said. 

"We think this is a disaster coming our way," said WAHLI East Kalimantan's advocacy and campaign department head Hafidz Prasetyo. 

"Because with the relocation, more buildings, public facilities, transportation and electricity will be needed. Coal will be dredged and our rivers will be polluted by the mining activities," he added. 

Out of the 1,190 mining licenses issued in East Kalimantan, 625 were in Kutai Kartanegara, according to data from coal watchdog Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM). 

There are currently more than 1,000 mining licenses issued in East Kalimantan. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

READ: New Indonesian capital offers opportunities for development, but environmental pitfalls abound


Responding to the green groups’ criticisms, Environmental Affairs and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in a statement on Wednesday (Sep 18) that a strategic environmental feasibility study is being prepared.

To be ready by the beginning of November, the study would provide guidance on the protection and environmental safeguards in the country's capital master plan.

Mdm Bakar promised dialogue with the local government, local communities, academics and observers, and assured the public that the environment and wildlife would be protected.

READ: New Indonesia capital: Land prices set to soar but not all locals thrilled

“I request that in the process of drawing up this environmental study, dialogues should be held. (The study) should not be based on data only, because proper planning involves dialogues,” the minister said.

Echoing her views, Mr Isran said the government would do its best to protect the environment.

East Kalimantan governor Isran Noor assures that the new capital won't harm indigenous people and the environment. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

"It's okay for people to worry, this is good so that the process does not violate the environmental regulations. Maybe they are worried because they don't understand. 

“But I guarantee that the government will not carry out programmes that damage the environment," he said.

Source: CNA/ks


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