Q&A: Indonesia’s new capital chief Bambang Susantono

Man in charge of capital project tells Al Jazeera he is confident Nusantara will be a ‘liveable and loveable’ place.

East Kalimantan, Indonesia – Indonesia is moving forward with its plans to build a new capital city — called Nusantara — in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.

The project is expected to cost approximately $34bn, and authorities hope it will be complete by 2045.

Nusantara is intended to relieve some of the environmental pressures facing the current capital Jakarta, which, apart from being polluted and congested, is the world’s fastest-sinking city.

Authorities have pitched the new capital as a model for sustainable and inclusive development.

But the project is also controversial — with some concerned about the effect on Indigenous communities and the environment, and also questions about whether the project can be finished on time, or indeed, at all.

Bambang Susantono, an engineer, economist, and former acting minister for transportation, was appointed as the head of the Nusantara Capital Authority in early 2022.

He spoke to Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington at the site of the new capital to share his views on the progress that has been made and his message for those who doubt that Indonesia will be able to finish the ambitious project.

Al Jazeera: How is the construction going?

Bambang Susantono: 2023 will be a busy year for us. Of course, next year will also be busy for us. But this year, we will start all the construction, especially for the basic infrastructure and essential buildings. But not just that. That is just the hardware. We would like to see the software. We put all the systems in place, we are doing social empowerment for local people.

Those are the same importance for us. So that when we have a complete ecosystem for Nusantara to be a liveable and also, loveable city. We would like to have both — liveable and loveable goes hand-in-hand. So that Nusantara will be one of the best sustainable forest cities in the world.

Al Jazeera: What will Nusantara look like in the future?

Bambang: The whole area of Nusantara will be 256,000 hectares [632,600 acres]. That’s about three and a half times larger than Singapore. In that area, only 25 percent will be built as the urban environment— and this must be a green, urban environment.

The remaining 75 percent will be green, and 65% will be tropical forest. If you see around here, this is actually a production forest. We would like to replant it — we call it reforestation, we want it to be a tropical forest again.

A wide view of the site of Nusantara. Trees have been felled and there is lots of bare earth. Trucks are moving about on dirt roads and there is a crane and a couple of excavators. There are trees in the foreground.
Indonesia’s new capital is being carved out of mostly production forest on the island of Borneo [Jessica Washington/ Al Jazeera]

We do hope that the sustainable forest city will be at least a carbon-neutral city by 2045. Carbon neutral means using the tropical forest as a carbon sink, and we try to control the urban environment as a green environment.

Al Jazeera: Why are some environmental groups still concerned about this project? I believe some have used the phrase ‘ecological disaster’. Why might they have that view?

Bambang: Because of our past practices, if you see some of the areas here, they have not so good environmental conditions. There is illegal mining, and some plantations inside the forest. These are things we want to reverse.

If we think about these things, we are talking about the past. We want to really prove, this will be a city for the future, with the green, smart, inclusive, and sustainable characteristics. I can say, in my opinion, this is our hope of the global campaign against climate change, global campaign for better biodiversity, and global campaign for the environment.

Let’s see this as everybody’s concern — if we can do it in Nusantara, we can replicate it on a global scale.

Al Jazeera: Let’s talk about inclusivity. I know there are some activities for people who already live here, including various training activities. But what about for Indigenous people for this area?

Bambang: We have to respect them. The Indigenous people, the local wisdom. That should be part of our development process. That is why we have some inclusive forums, trying to get dialogue with all the stakeholders. So they will be part of our development part in the future.

We are going to appreciate and incorporate the local wisdom. Of course, this will be a global-class city. It’s not just for Indonesia, the standard will be international standard. Especially on the ESG — environment, social and governance. The social part includes inclusivity, where all the stakeholders, especially Indigenous people will be part of the process.

There are steps that now is being sorted out by the ministry of spatial plan and agrarian — how to be more involved and inclusive. There is a process of course. There is some dialogue process. There are some anthropologists and sociologist studies.

In general, we will give some room for dialogue for them to have dialogue with us, not just dialogue with us but all the stakeholders. Sometimes, between or among them there will be disagreements, so we have to see the social and anthropological studies related to this and put that as materials for these cases.

Al Jazeera: In terms of paying for this project, what are the challenges and opportunities?

Bambang: We know the situation of the world is not so colourful right now. We are in the middle of recovery from COVID-19, we have climate change, we have conflict in some parts of the world. Conflict, climate change and COVID-19.

Despite all that, there are still investors that would like to invest in some of the projects that can have some guarantee in the next 10 to 15 years. Nusantara has some public-private partnership schemes, there are private finance schemes, there are blended finance schemes.

From that angle, this is a good project to invest in. We also would also like to put a stamp on the ESG — anyone who invests in this project will see this credibility and see this is a good project, not just good for return but good for ESG.

After the market sounding directly by our President at the end of last year, there has been a lot of international interest from investors. The ones that are serious are from UAE, from Saudi Arabia, China, South Korea and the US. Some are exploring in more detail, of course they have to carry out studies, to see the environment here. Hopefully, by the next quarter, we will see who is really in. Some are not in right now but are doing their procedures. We are opening up opportunities for them.

Al Jazeera: What would you say to people who doubt whether the project can be completed?

Bambang: By 2024, we would like to have a showcase. Perhaps only 921 hectares [2,276 acres] or a maximum of 1,000 hectares [2,471 acres]. In the 1,000 hectares, we will demonstrate we have a complete ecosystem. A city that has a self-propelled character.

If people feel ownership for this city, it will be sustainable, regardless of political conditions. If it is a liveable and loveable city – you can see the air quality is good. We will have a ten-minute city so you can reach destinations within 10 minutes, and you can walk with comfort here. It will be somewhere that people love to live — working, learning and living

See Nusantara as a city for tomorrow. This will be completed in 2045. Some people ask me, Bambang, what will the city be like? Will it be like Avatar? Like Wakanda? You might dream about that. I think with the characteristics of smart, green, inclusive, and resilient, the city will be sustainable for the future.

Source: Al Jazeera