Q&A with Nusantara’s Myrna Asnawati Safitri

Q&A with Nusantara’s Myrna Asnawati Safitri

  • The ongoing development of an entirely new capital city from the ground up in Indonesia has alarmed environmental and Indigenous rights activists, who have warned of both deep ecosystem and social impacts.
  • The government has justified the plan to move the nation’s capital from Jakarta, on the island of Java, to Indonesia Borneo as a way of ensuring a greater share of development beyond the country’s western islands.
  • Mongabay has already reported on the risks to the wider Bornean region and the additional pressures on marine ecosystems that are a biodiversity haven.
  • In response, Myrna Asnawati Safitri, the deputy for environment and natural resources at the government agency overseeing the development, reached out for an exclusive interview where these and other thorny questions were addressed.

JAKARTA — The ongoing development of Indonesia’s new capital city, Nusantara, in eastern Borneo has raised alarm bells among environmentalists and human rights defenders around the world as the region is home to extraordinarily rich ecological and social resources.

President Joko Widodo announced in August 2019 an ambitious plan to relocate Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to Borneo, a few weeks after he was sworn in for his second and final term in office. Widodo hadn’t mentioned the plan during his campaign or his previous term, leading observers to question the reasoning behind it and whether he would actually go through with it.

Widodo said the relocation was needed as Jakarta is rapidly sinking, overpopulated and dangerously polluted. In addition, he said moving the capital outside the island of Java would reduce development inequality between western Indonesia and the less industrialized, more impoverished eastern islands.

Widodo also pledged that the new capital, known as IKN Nusantara, would be a “forest, green city” with a construction strategy that poses minimal environmental damage and a development design that aims at net-zero carbon emissions once completed. The president expects that up to 80% of the funding for this new city built from the ground up will come from private investors, with the remainder allocated from the state budget over the next several years.

A map showing the region allocated for Indonesia’s new capital city, Nusantara. Image courtesy of the Indonesian government.
The Nusantara “Point Zero” has become an icon for Indonesia’s new capital city, which lies at the heart of an expiring logging concession in eastern Borneo. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

In February 2022, the government passed the development plan into law, laying down the legal framework for the $32 billion project that’s expected to be finished by 2045. By then, the new city should cover 256,000 hectares (633,000 acres) of land, most of it part of an expiring logging concession, and the rest made up of mining and oil palm concessions and settlements in what is currently the district of North Penajam Paser. The president in March 2022 also appointed a new government agency, the Nusantara Capital City Authority, to oversee the progress of the new city’s development and report directly to him.

As Nusantara begins to take shape, experts and observers remain on high alert about the anticipated environmental and social downsides of the development.

Mongabay’s reporting has observed and captured the wider risks the development has created for the Bornean region, the worrying transformation of East Kalimantan province’s ecological hinterland, and also the additional pressures to the marine ecosystem of the province’s Balikpapan Bay.

Some of the findings in Mongabay’s reports prompted Myrna Asnawati Safitri, the deputy for environment and natural resources at the Nusantara Capital City Authority, to reach out for an exclusive interview with Mongabay reporter Basten Gokkon in Jakarta. Myrna was appointed to the agency in October 2022, having previously worked at the government’s Peatland Restoration Agency and before that the land-reform advocacy NGO Epistema Institute.

Mongabay questioned her on the government’s developing strategy to mitigate the eco-social impacts from the construction of the new capital and its supporting facilities all over Borneo. Myrna also described the challenges that her growing team faces, including resolving the region’s complex sociocultural structures and managing limited resources to enforce policies against land speculation and encroachment. The following interview has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

Part of the forested area in East Kalimantan province that’s being developed for Indonesia’s new capital city, Nusantara. Image by Richaldo Hariandja/Mongabay Indonesia.

Mongabay: What do you think of the recent news reports about the development of Indonesia’s new capital city?

Myrna Safitri: First, I’m just happy with all the news because the public deserves to know. I am very aware that due to the authority’s limitations, not all information can be conveyed to the public. Based on the reports so far, many still cast doubt on whether this development will sacrifice the environment or not. That’s the fundamental question. If you ask me, I say no, because, firstly, the regulatory framework and development planning clearly state that the construction of the new capital is aimed to rehabilitate the location’s environment that has already been damaged. Perhaps this is an aspect that has not been raised enough.

If we look at the location of the IKN, the land area is 256,000 hectares, most of which are industrial concessions planted with eucalyptus. Then there are several oil palm concessions, as well as 100 mining concessions. That’s the existing situation. So the current environment is not a good environment, it is already damaged. There are very, very few of the so-called natural forests. And not all of the 256,000 hectares will be developed to become the city, but only about 50,000 hectares [124,000 acres], and it will happen in stages through 2045. There are five stages of IKN development: the first is 2022-2024, which is preparation, and the next stages are every five years up to 2045.

Second, the development is committed to controlling climate change because one of the KPIs [key performance indicators] is to achieve net-zero emissions in 2045. My office is currently drafting a road map for that. We are developing an LDC [locally determined commitment], like the NDC, which is national, for the new capital as a reference for controlling climate change.

Mongabay: Some of those concerns may arise from the fundamental question of why build a new city from scratch instead of resolving the sustainability issues in Jakarta or upgrading an existing city like Balikpapan [the largest city in Indonesian Borneo]? Why is this new “forest city” being built?

Myrna Safitri: I can’t answer that because it’s a political decision. I also found out when the new capital was already decided. There must have been certain considerations as well.

Mongabay: You mentioned that one of the key designs of the new city is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. However, experts have warned that the construction of a new city from scratch will create additional carbon emissions. What is your agency’s plan to achieve net-zero while reducing any additional emissions from the construction process? And do you think the ecosystem and society of Indonesian Borneo have the capacity to accommodate those additional emissions?

Myrna Safitri: When talking about emissions, we must look at the important sectors that are the main emitters. First, is certainly forestry and other land use (FOLU) as it is extensive. If this sector is not properly managed, it can become an emitter. But if it can be managed properly, it can become an absorber. In the FOLU sector what is being done is controlling deforestation. This was adopted in the first few months. We issued a circular to the person in charge of construction to control the deforestation as much as possible. For example, while we understand that logging is inevitable in development, we only allow logging in locations that have been allocated, and these areas are in plantation forests.

Second, by design, none of the development encroaches on natural forests. And even in the areas that are allowed to be developed, logging can only happen in moderation according to the development stages. Third, rehabilitation is also carried out. So for critical locations, rehabilitation activities are being carried out. The various ministries have also made these efforts, gradually turning monoculture plantation forests closer to tropical forests. That’s from the FOLU sector.

For the mining sector, this is the biggest emitter, actually. Soon, we will release a policy for a moratorium. So there won’t be any issuance of new mining permits or any permit upgrades in the new capital area, all of its 256,000 hectares. But that brings us to the energy issue for the new capital when it can’t be coal-based. Right now, our commitment is to solar power. About 80% of the energy [for Nusantara] will be from clean sources, such as solar, especially for transportation. That’s the mitigation plan for mining.

For transportation, we are abandoning fossil fuel-based transportation, so it will be electric cars and things like that. Then, in the construction sector, we are developing a plan using environmentally friendly construction materials. This is not fixed yet, so I have to talk with a lot of stakeholders about what kind of environmentally friendly alternatives can be used. When the list has been made, we will discuss it with everyone who has a construction project at the new capital, and they must use those materials.

A high clearing for the new toll road between the Sungai Wain protected forest, to the right, and Balikpapan Bay, to the left. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Mongabay: These efforts you mention are within the 256,000 hectares of the new capital city. However, our reporting has found that the impacts of Nusantara’s development are also being felt more widely, like in Balikpapan Bay, the Sungai Wain protected forest, and even the nickel mines in Sulawesi to support the clean energy initiative in Nusantara. What is the mitigation strategy for the impacts outside Nusantara?

Myrna Safitri: First, for the closest areas there is actually a tri-city concept: the new capital, Balikpapan and Samarinda. The master plan already calls for cooperation between those regions. After I was sworn in, I met with all the regional heads to explore opportunities for interregional cooperation, because it’s impossible to build a new capital city that is clean if the surroundings aren’t. It’s definitely going to have an impact, that’s why we need to sit together.

One of the things being done is related to Balikpapan Bay. On April 5, we gathered the stakeholders, starting from the Indonesian Navy, which will manage security in these waters; the harbormaster who regulates ship traffic; the regional development agency; and also NGOs, all working together to think about what to do with Balikpapan Bay. Because the threats have all been there from the beginning — oil spills, mangroves being cut down — that’s a fact. I’m not trying to defend myself, but regardless of the new capital, the Balikpapan Bay ecosystem is threatened. But then how can the new capital not make things worse? That’s why we brought them all together and agreed that we need a forum where stakeholders can communicate with each other and then design a joint action plan. But this cannot be finished in one meeting, that’s why we’ve made ourselves available to facilitate so that the forum can continue to meet.

Another thing is that there must be policy synchronization. It’s tricky. For example, Balikpapan has a special economic zone, Kariangau. Whether it wants to adjust its plan or not, there must be a discussion. North Penajam Paser district wants to protect much of the mangroves, and that must be discussed, too. So, in the end, we’re not only taking care of the new capital. We’ve had to go left and right to invite the local governments to progress together. There’s also pollution management, particularly diesel exhaust from incoming ships. That’s among the list of procedures for what can and cannot happen, that must be completed.

And then there’s the mangroves. Most of them are in good condition and must be protected. The new capital plan has designated them for protection functions. We have been conditioned to think as if only forest areas are protected, and so anything can happen in areas designated as “other use.” But that’s a mistake. With the new capital, we want to bring in a new era in which we move past an area’s designation, but focus on the zoning function. When an area is designated for protection function, regardless if the land status is “other use” or forest, then it abides by the protection regulations. So then the zoning law comes into it. The land can be owned by anyone, but it can’t be used haphazardly. That’s something that I think is new, it’s not like that in other places.

Mongabay: How do you ensure there won’t be any misuse of those areas?

Myrna Safitri: We are waiting to have more personnel in the near future to enforce the policy because these clearings are actually not allowed. Any clearing of those areas for the protection function is already forbidden. We’ve also been doing an analysis and finding where the clearing has taken place. After the Eid holiday [in late April], one by one they will be taken care of.

Mongabay: How about outside Indonesian Borneo, like Sulawesi?

Myrna Safitri: It is also important outside Borneo, especially in Sulawesi, because the materials come from there. I think it’s important that we have a discussion with the local government, and that when they provide the supplies, they must meet certain criteria, such as that they have not damaged the environment and so on. We may make it a requirement that anything that goes into the new capital must have legal assurance — we won’t accept illegal goods — and that they must come from activities that have not damaged the environment. But this must be brought up at the national level as well later on, so that the relevant local governments abide by the same policy.

A sign along the new toll road that claims ownership to the land, in this case 135 hectares (336 acres). Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Experts and the government are both concerned about the increase of land speculation that the Nusantara development has attracted. What’s your strategy to address this particular issue?

Myrna Safitri: There is a presidential decree on land and one of the provisions is the suspension of the issuance of land title deeds. And one of its goals is to control those land speculators. But there’s been a misunderstanding on the ground that this applies to everyone, and so some people who wanted to get titles to their land became worried that they couldn’t. That’s not the case, though. We have straightened that out. So if indeed they are people who have been in the process of getting their titles, it won’t be a problem to process that. What is not allowed is new clearings, new transactions, so that we can anticipate those land speculators.

Mongabay: Human rights defenders are concerned about the relocation of local and Indigenous communities affected by Nusantara’s development, especially ensuring there’s no forced removal and that their free, prior and informed consent is sought out. How does the Nusantara authority ensure that the rights of those communities are protected and they get the proper compensation?

Myrna Safitri: When it comes to coercion, it doesn’t exist. The sociocultural deputy is currently carrying out a dialogue with the communities to find out the options that they can accept, including whether it is necessary to relocate. All of that depends on the details of the zoning planning, like what is the designation of an area that’s currently used as a settlement. If, for example, the area is allocated for a security and defense facility, and so relocation is unavoidable, then there has to be a dialogue with the communities, such as where they will be moved to, whether they agree to move to the relocation site, and what must be provided there. And what is being provided isn’t necessarily about monetary compensation, it’s also about facilities. What do the communities want exactly, and they have different wants. For example, some say they want to have a new village, and that’s not a problem. Even we in the authority are thinking of making a heritage village if the communities really need that. So this is still in the dialogue process.

What’s important is to save these hundreds of [Indigenous] people. One of the initial concepts we’ve been preparing for is the local wisdom approach. There needs to be a long discussion about where the location will be because I don’t know whether they want the existing location, what they want to do there, like whether they want it to be a site to showcase their cultural heritage, like dancing and such. Or do they want something wider? In my opinion, it can be a place to preserve the ecosystem, so there’s also the environmental services aspect, and this is what must be discussed. What we want to explore is the basic traditional knowledge, what they have done, and whether we can reconstruct that, so that culture is not merely dances.

Mongabay: Another social impact that experts have highlighted is related to competitiveness in education and work opportunities between newcomers who are mostly expected to come from Java, and the local and Indigenous communities who decide to stay in Nusantara. How do you mitigate that?

Myrna Safitri: Certainly, affirmative policies will be created, including addressing the needed upgrading of human resource capacity, because competition is unavoidable. Education is really our concern. The discussions on that are still in progress, so I can’t really say much besides that it’s not part of my task. But yes, we are thinking of the forms of support.

Traditional small fishers in Balikpapan and North Penajam Paser rely on the sustainability of Balikpapan Bay and its resource-rich ecosystem. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
Balikpapan Bay is home to dense native mangroves where threatened species like proboscis monkeys live. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Environmentalists have also highlighted the threat of reduced wildlife habitats and corridors due to the development of Nusantara and its supporting facilities, such as what’s happened with the new toll road that fringes the Sungai Wain protected forest. How does your agency protect these wildlife habitats and corridors?

Myrna Safitri: First, the wildlife in IKN is protected. That’s the basic policy. How to protect wildlife? One, the natural corridors are protected, they will not be tampered with. Second, corridors are also designed for potentially impacted areas, such as in the case of the toll road. The public works ministry has made the design, so there is an underpass or bridge. We have discussed it with animal experts, and in my opinion the design is suitable, and my colleagues at the public works ministry have also said they are ready to adapt the design. Then we also support existing wildlife efforts such as those by the BOS Foundation, Samboja Lestari, for sun bears as well as orangutans. Those ex-situ conservation programs are given space and protection. Another important issue for wildlife is the arrival of workers, many of whom are not local people who may have different knowledge about the wildlife. We have made technical instructions for project managers on how to instruct their workers regarding wildlife, what to do, what not to do. We have periodically disseminated this information.

Mongabay: One of the goals with this project is to support even distribution of economic growth, especially in the eastern parts of Indonesia. Do you think the economic benefits of the Nusantara development will outweigh the eco-social downsides?

Myrna Safitri: I can’t answer that because, firstly, I have never counted and have never read the results of that calculation. But that precaution to not cause harm to the environment, it is indeed being done. This also includes industrial cluster options that can be developed, as far as possible those that are not industries that will damage the environment, for example sustainable agriculture, then ecotourism — those will be developed.

Mongabay: Can you confidently say that the development of the new capital city has so far been and continues to be sustainable?

Myrna Safitri: Yes. If you look at the current directives, both verbally and in documents, the alignment with the environment is high. But who am I to give guarantees if, for example, someone hijacks it? We don’t know, do we? In the next three or four more years, who knows? That’s why it needs to be safeguarded together, that’s why it needs to always be reminded that the new capital is for restoring the environment so that everyone remembers and everyone is moved to remind it.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

See related from this reporter:

To build its ‘green’ capital city, Indonesia runs a road through a biodiverse forest

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