‘Like we don’t exist’: Indigenous fear Indonesia new capital plan

As Indonesia scales up construction of its new capital city, Indigenous people say they fear being displaced by the ambitious project. 

Sepaku, East Kalimantan – Sernai, 68, lives in a wooden house that once belonged to her great-great-grandparents.

It is a simple home — there is no glass in the windows, and it is mostly unfurnished.

This is where she has lived her whole life. But her village is no longer the quiet place she associates with her childhood. These days, she wakes every morning to the sound of heavy machinery in her back yard.

Indonesia is building a new capital city in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The city will be called Nusantara, and it will replace the current capital Jakarta, an overcrowded and polluted metropolis and the world’s fastest-sinking city.

Sernai’s village, where she lives with fellow Balik Indigenous people, will eventually be part of the new city.

“People from the capital are coming. They are pushing us out. They will take my house eventually,” she told Al Jazeera. She lost part of her house and farmland to construction of an intake reservoir for a dam to service the new capital. “We can’t even get water anymore because the river is blocked. The river used to be our source of life. We would drink from it, bathe there, and use it for cooking. Now we can’t access it anymore.”

Sernai said the government gave her family, which includes her 17 grandchildren, about $3,000 in compensation.

Sernai in a long red dress with a striking blue and green formal pattern. She is standing outside her house and construction can be seen going on in the background through the foliage.
Sernai says her family now relies on local authorities to bring them water since they no longer have access to the river. When Al Jazeera visited her home, the water tank was empty [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

But she said it is not enough to make up for the disruption to their lives.

“We used to plant coconuts and plums. There were rows of trees, and they are all gone now. We had all kinds of fruits that we could sell at the market, like mango. Now, there is nothing we can sell,” she said. “We used to live good lives, we never had to buy things like wood, water or vegetables. Now, we live miserable lives,” Sernai said.

‘Sacrificed in the name of national development’

The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of Nusantara (AMAN) estimates that at least 20,000 Indigenous people will be relocated as construction on Nusantara progresses.

“Indigenous people also need development, but this kind of development will destroy them,” said AMAN’s Muhammad Arman. “When the new capital is fully developed, there will be migration of people from other places. Indigenous people will end up pushed out of their land, it’s just a matter of time. Development should not violate the human rights of Indigenous people, they can’t just be sacrificed in the name of national development.”

Advocacy groups like AMAN say one of the main challenges for Indigenous people is proving land ownership to secure compensation.

“Indigenous people’s land ownership is not considered to have strong legality, if there is no certificate. So, they are considered to be staying on land they don’t own,” Arman said. “The inheritance of land in Indigenous communities is not seen as legal.”

A white marker with a red top amidst undergrowth. The marker has the letter B on it with IKN below that and 588 after that.
A marker that Atim found on his land. IKN stands for Ibu Kota Negara (capital city) [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

Atim, who is also Balik, told Al Jazeera he fears he could soon lose his land to the development.

“My plantation is inherited from my ancestors. So many of us don’t have documents. Our proof is in our history. Back then, things were not complicated, people didn’t need written things. Now we need to prove our ownership,” he said. “Many people already felt the impact of the water intake development. They said they only needed one or two metres, but they ended up taking more and more land.”

Atim said he feels his community is being disrespected and disenfranchised by the Indonesian government. A few weeks ago, he found stakes in his plantation with the letters IKN — Ibu Kota Negara, meaning the nation’s capital — painted on them. He said no one has told him what the stakes mean.

“They act like we don’t exist. They act like we aren’t human. I accept the new capital but don’t dismiss our rights. They want to build something by destroying what is already here,” he said. “There is no communication. They involve people from other districts, but never us. We don’t know what is happening.”

‘Room for dialogue’

The head of the Nusantara Capital Authority is Bambang Susantono, an engineer and economist appointed to lead the project in early 2022.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, he said the government is taking steps to be inclusive of Indigenous peoples and to allow them to be more involved. “We have to respect them. The Indigenous people, the local wisdom. That should be part of our development process,” he said. “We will give some room for dialogue, so they can have dialogue with us. Not just with us but with all the stakeholders. Sometimes, there may be disagreements, so we have to see the social and anthropological studies related to this and put that as materials for these cases.”

Atim standing in a grove of palm trees with houses in the distance. He is wearing a white polo short with a blue pattern and collar. He has a moustache.
Atim believes other residents, including people from other provinces, are being prioritised over the rights of Indigenous peoples [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]
Sibukdin standing near an oil palm tree with houses behind him. He is wearing a patterned shirt and with a yellow scarf with tassles at the end draped around his neck. He is also wearing a traditional black hat with gold embroidery.
Sibukdin, the head of the Balik tribe, said historic sites like graveyards provide proof of how long his people have lived on their land [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

The government has promoted initiatives like training programmes for locals as representative of the benefits the new capital development will offer people in East Kalimantan. Some of those include workshops to teach people digital skills or new farming techniques.

Al Jazeera met some residents of Sepaku who were proud participants in such programmes — they said these initiatives had changed their lives for the better.

Sri Sudarwati, whose parents migrated to East Kalimantan in the 1970s, participated in training to learn hydroponic planting techniques with her neighbours. She said the new capital project, and the attention it has brought to her village, have improved her quality of life.

“With the new capital, they opened up so many training opportunities. This hydroponic gardening has helped my family’s income a lot. My life has totally changed,” she said. “Before the new capital plan, we never got any attention. People didn’t know where Sepaku was, we were very backward. I want to advise other people, don’t think too much. Let’s be grateful about Sepaku being part of the capital.”

Such advice is poorly received by Balik people, including their leader Sibukdin, who told Al Jazeera he fears the development will spell disaster for his community.

“We don’t want to be relocated from the land of our ancestors. And we feel our land will be taken by the government. They said this capital is for the welfare of all Indonesians? But which Indonesians? We don’t feel it’s for us,” he said. “They can easily erase our rights. Such is the greatness of people in authority. We consider our historical sites to be the source of our power. But they even moved the graves of our ancestors. The new capital is haunting us, and haunting the future of our children too.”

Women working in a nursery. They are planting seedlings in raised pipes. The edge of the forest is behind them. They look very happy with what they are doing.
Sri Sudarwati (left), whose parents moved to the area from Java in the 1970s, said the roads built for new capital development have shortened the time it takes for her to travel from her village to the closest major city, Balikpapan, from almost three hours to just one [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera