Indonesia’s Kalimantan region, just like the whole of Borneo Island, is strongly associated with mighty tropical rainforests and often dubbed one of the remaining lungs of the world. It is home to indigenous groups as well as unique flora and fauna.
Amid aggressive deforestation on the island in the past years, one cannot help but wonder what will happen to the forests once the government kicks off its plan to build a new capital city to take some of the burden off Jakarta.
The grandiose plan to build a capital city that is smart and green has raised concern among residents of the area, who fear the land would be worked on without their consent.
“If the government wants to use these forests, they should not only talk with local authorities. They must meet us first, because here we often see plots of land opened without us knowing who granted the permission, said Masrip, 60, a resident of the town of Penajam in North Penajam Paser regency.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced in August his ambitious plan to move the capital city to an area covering part of North Penajam Paser and part of the neighboring regency of Kutai Kartanegara in the province of East Kalimantan. The decision is based on in-depth studies that found the area to be relatively free of natural disaster risks, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
While most areas in the two regencies have lost some of their forest cover to plantations, mining and other causes, there are at least two areas in the region where tree cover is still in good condition: Bangkirai National Park and the Bukit Soeharto forest area.
The 1,500-hectare national park, located in Samboja district of Kutai Kartanegara, is a tropical rainforest conservation area. Trees in the national park are up to 50 meters high and more than 150 years old.
Meanwhile, Bukit Soeharto is a 61,850-ha forest area located near the mid-point of the road conalmost necting Samarinda and Balikpapan, the two largest cities in the province.
In 2007, the Forestry Ministry declared the area as a grand forest park, thereby bestowing on it conservation area status.
However, the area has been disfigured by illegal logging and the opening of plantations by residents for years.
The forests of Sepaku district are the home and main livelihood of the Paser indigenous community, who have inhabited the area since the 16th century.
The conservation of animals in the forests has been the main concern of environmentalists regarding the capital city plan. East Kalimantan is home to several endemic animals, such as the orangutan, sun bear and proboscis monkey.
All three are on the so-called red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for vulnerable and endangered species. Their numbers have been declining because of land use change, settlements encroaching on forests as well as poaching.
Several parties seek to save the species, including the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation, which opened a rehabilitation center deep in the forest of Samboja district in Kutai Kartanegara regency. Part of the district reportedly will be used for the new capital city.
Many believe the new city will threaten the rehabilitation center, which currently provides shelter for at least 51 sun bears and 128 orangutans.
“The development of a new economic center will inevitably affect the surrounding areas. People, for example, can encroach on forests within the rehabilitation center,” BOS Foundation director Jamartin Sihite told The Jakarta Post.
The National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) has brushed off such concerns, arguing that authorities plan to apply the concept of a “forest city”, which would be in line with environmental conservation efforts.
Under that concept, more than 50 percent of the area of the new city will be open green space. The city will also be powered by lowcarbon and renewable energy sources.
Bappenas has devised a plan to conserve orangutans and other endangered species in the area, although this would not be implemented before the final phase of development for the new capital city takes place from 2035 to 2045.
Jamartin urged authorities to make the forest city concept as well as the conservation of endemic and endangered species a top priority.
“If authorities take these measures later, it might be too late for us to save the environment,” he warned.
Separately, the Environment and Forestry Ministry said it would conduct a strategic environmental assessment (KLHS) gradually starting September to provide guidance on environmental protection and safety criteria to be included in the new capital city master plan.
“The plan to relocate the capital city to East Kalimantan is an opportunity for the government to accelerate environmental protection and recovery efforts,” the ministry said in a statement recently.
“We will ensure the protected forests outside the sites earmarked for the new city are not disturbed, as these will provide clean water for the new capital city,” the statement said.