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Jakarta Is Crowded And Sinking, So Indonesia Is Moving Its Capital To Borneo

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) says the new capital city will be in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. He's seen on Monday with Vice President Jusuf Kalla (right) and Minister of Agriculture and Land Planning Sofyan Djalil.
Gagah Adhaputra
AFP/Getty Images
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) says the new capital city will be in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. He's seen on Monday with Vice President Jusuf Kalla (right) and Minister of Agriculture and Land Planning Sofyan Djalil.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo says his country will create a new capital city on the island of Borneo, revealing new details about his plan to move the central government out of Jakarta. The capital's current location faces a number of problems, including the fact that it's sinking.

Widodo's announcement Monday comes months after he said he wanted to move the capital, seeking a place that can offer a break from Jakarta's environmental challenges as well as its relentlessly gridlocked traffic.

While rising seawater levels from climate change are a widespread concern for island and coastal areas worldwide, experts say Jakarta has played a central role in its own predicament.

"Jakarta's problems are largely man-made," NPR's Merrit Kennedy reported earlier this year. "The area's large population has extracted so much groundwater that it has impacted the ground levels, and many surface water resources are polluted."

As it looked for a new capital, Indonesia's state planning and development agency, called Bappenas, chose the Kalimantan site because it fit all the government's criteria, "including being relatively free from earthquakes and volcanoes," The Jakarta Post reports.

The new capital, which has yet to be named, would be in eastern Borneo, hundreds of miles northeast of Jakarta across the Java Sea. While the selected area is close to the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda, the region is mostly known for its beaches and dense rainforests. Borneo's lush jungles also form large national parks that are vital habitats for orangutans.

Widodo's announcement has met with a broad range of reactions, from concerns about the environmental impact on Borneo to support — and suggestions that the president should focus more on Indonesia's economy and its energy and health needs rather than on building a new capital.

It's common for politicians to take office with promises to clean things up in the capital — to "drain the swamp." But that rhetoric is both more literal and more complicated in Jakarta, which is seen as " the fastest-sinking city in the world, with almost half of its area below sea level," Kennedy reported.

With Jakarta's situation predicted to grow increasingly dire, Widodo announced his new-capital initiative shortly after winning reelection in April. And while some on Borneo welcomed the idea that its infrastructure could get a boost, the idea of a central government moving in next door also raised concerns.

"I hope the city will develop and the education will become as good as in Jakarta," one high school student told the BBC in April. "But all the land and forest that's empty space now will be used. Kalimantan [the Indonesian portion of Borneo] is the lungs of the world, and I am worried we will lose the forest we have left."

By building a new presence in Borneo's East Kalimantan province, Indonesia would be putting its capital closer to several neighbors. Most of the island is Indonesian, but it's also home to Brunei, and a chunk of its northern section is part of Malaysia.

If it all goes according to plan, Indonesia will carry out an idea that was first discussed decades ago, but one that has never gained enough traction. Widodo says the current project is the result of three years' worth of intense study.

A detailed plan has not yet been announced about what the change could mean for Indonesia's international partners — specifically, whether they will need to build new embassies or whether a diplomatic center might remain in Jakarta. The city is also home to the regional ASEAN Secretariat.

By contrast, Borneo's status is far from the regional travel and business hub that defines Jakarta. And Widodo says it's the weight of Jakarta's combined status that makes it vital to move the capital. Seeking to bolster support for his plan, the president said via Twitter that as the hub of government and trade, Jakarta currently bears a burden that is too heavy.

Indonesia isn't the only country looking to move its capital. In recent years, South Korea has been shifting administrative offices to Sejong — some 75 miles southeast of Seoul — after an initial plan to officially relocate the capital hit legal obstacles. Egypt is building a new capital that will sit in the desert between the Nile and the Suez Canal. And more than 50 years ago, Pakistan moved its capital from Karachi to Islamabad. Past examples also include Brazil's creation of Brasília and Australia's construction of Canberra.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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