Indigenous people under threat from Indonesia's plan to move capital

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the country's new capital would be moved to the province of East Kalimantan on Borneo, with the relocation planned to begin in 2024. PHOTO: AFP/TRIBUN KALTIM

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thousands of indigenous people may be uprooted from their ancestral lands on Borneo island as large areas of forests are cleared to make way for Indonesia's new capital, human rights groups said on Friday (Aug 30).

President Joko Widodo said this week the new capital would be moved to the province of East Kalimantan on Borneo, with the relocation planned to begin in 2024.

The current capital Jakarta is a crowded and polluted city on the island of Java that is slowly sinking, while Borneo is known for its forests, orang utans and sun bears.

Indigenous Dayaks who live in Kalimantan have been caught up in a decades-long struggle to protect their traditional land and forests from logging, mining and oil palm plantations, according to advocacy group Minority Rights Group International (MRGI).

"The Dayaks have been persistent victims of environmental degradation, and this move would physically destroy more of their environment," said Mr Joshua Castellino, MRGI's executive director.

"The abandonment of Jakarta due to pollution and overcrowding is hardly an endorsement for a move into someone else's backyard where the same will likely occur. There must be a wide consultation to understand the impact," he said.

The Indonesian government is currently conducting a feasibility study, Mr Joko said.

Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro said the government had conducted anthropological assessments, and that land acquisitions would start in 2020.

Indigenous people in East Kalimantan have not been consulted, and stand to lose their lands and livelihoods to make way for the new capital, said Mr Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri of advocacy group Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

"These are people who have lived there for generations. Resettlement is not a good solution, as they will be unable to make a living if they are removed from their traditional lands," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Across the archipelago, indigenous and rural communities are fighting to reclaim their ancestral land, following a historic 2013 court ruling to lift state control of customary forests.

Mr Joko had vowed to return 12.7 million hectares of such land to indigenous people, but progress has been slow, land rights activists said.

Officials said they have set aside 180,000 hectares of government land in East Kalimantan for the new capital.

Mr Nirarta Samadhi, country director of World Resources Institute Indonesia, said it could mean clearing "a vast amount of intact forests and peatlands".

"In an area already under severe pressure from deforestation, destroying peatlands would release a massive amount of emissions," he said.

"Drained peatlands are highly prone to fires, with serious environmental, economic and health impacts."

An environmental impact assessment should be conducted, and mitigation and adaptation measures must be provided for the new capital, he added.

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