Green Fields, Orange Apes
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Indonesians are talking about their government’s plan to move their capital from the metropolis of Jakarta on the island of Java to a new city under construction, Nusantara, on the island of Borneo.
Expected to be completed in 2045, the $32 billion, 990-square mile megaproject will host offices and agencies that employ 1.5 million civil servants, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Indonesian government is paying for around a fifth of the project, while state-run and private companies are footing the rest of the bill.
Polluted and congested, Jakarta is sinking due to groundwater extraction and rising sea levels, wrote the Associated Press. Nusantara, in contrast, will be built using green technology and sustainable principles, officials say, according to Antara, Indonesia’s state-run news agency.
It’s not a new idea. Brazil built Brasília to replace Rio de Janeiro. Turkey built Ankara to help slough off its Ottoman legacy in Istanbul. The United States built Washington, DC rather than keep Philadelphia as its capital. Egypt is almost finished with its new capital, a metropolis in the desert that will replace Cairo.
But critics of Nusantara are numerous. Local polls show that more than 60 percent of the country disapproves of the move.
Politician Edy Mulyadi, who had been part of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party, for example, got himself into hot water when he said that President Joko Widodo (also called Jokowi) was erecting a city on land “where genies dump kids,” noting that “kuntilanak” and “genderuwo” – or vampiric and troll-like creatures from Indonesian folklore – are reputed to haunt the region of East Kalimantan Province where Nusantara will rise.
He was then arrested on charges of “inciting hatred” against the Kalimantan people and “causing a racket,” wrote Nikkei Asia.
Perhaps Mulyadi’s comments were flip. They obliquely related to real concerns, however. Environmentalists are worried the city will hasten the forest burning and development that has destroyed habitat for endangered orangutans and other species, noted CNN. Nearly 1,000 square miles of trees will be cut to make way for the city, for example.
The orangutan population in Borneo decreased by half between 2005 and 2018. Less than 100,000 of the furry, highly intelligent apes remain. It’s hard to see how a new city and associated development will prevent that downward trend, argued Science magazine.
Others have voiced skepticism about the capacity of the government to prevent bribery and other forms of corruption, the Financial Times explained. Still, others wonder if the Indonesian government can afford to spend so much on the project. The answer to that question could come years from now, of course.
Ambitious projects help countries advance. They can also become boondoggles that burden future generations.