Indonesia’s new forest capital in Borneo heightens fears for the future of orangutans


(CNN) — The scorching, jungle-covered tropical island of Borneo was once considered one of the most remote and wildest places on earth. A place where orangutans and headhunters hid undisturbed.

Along with neighboring Sumatra, it is one of only two places in the world where the orangutan lives in the wild.

According to WWF.

As deforestation accelerates and more and more species are lost and threatened, more and more problems lurk.

Almost three years after announcing it, the Indonesian government is moving forward with plans to relocate the national capital to the dense but declining jungles of East Kalimantan province.

That is, 730 miles (about 1,175 kilometers) from the sinking, overcrowded Jakarta to a new “forest capital”, as President Joko Widodo calls it, in the hilly outback of Borneo.

With the move now enshrined in law, work on Nusantara could begin this year, while relocation will begin in 2024.
About an hour’s drive north of the port of Balikpapan, the location chosen for the new capital straddles the regencies of North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara – or administrative districts.

An orangutan eats a pineapple at the Samboja Lodge ecotourism resort, operated by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.

Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Orangutan habitat continues to shrink

The government envisions the “smart city in the forest” as an innovation hub.

But alongside the excitement there is also deep concern for the shrinking lowland rainforest and its wildlife. The UN says humans are driving the orangutan to extinction.

It has raised fears that by securing a future for the sinking megalopolis, Indonesian officials are sinking the future of one of the planet’s most remarkable creatures.

“This move will bring a large population but also great demands for changes in land use to accommodate new housing and office complexes, and even food production centers,” said Anton Nurcahyo, Deputy Director General of the Indonesian non-profit organization. Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS).
A juvenile orangutan plays at the Samboja Lodge ecotourism resort.

A juvenile orangutan plays at the Samboja Lodge ecotourism resort.

Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“It will inevitably create huge changes in the surrounding habitats.”

The foundation’s orangutan rehabilitation work began in East Kalimantan in 1991.

Since 2006, his orangutan sanctuary, Samboja Lestari, has cared for injured and orphaned orangutans rescued from jungles destroyed by logging and palm oil cultivation.

It is located precisely in the area of ​​the new capital.

Today, staff care for more than 120 rescued orangutans in a regenerating forest conservation area. The idea is to release them into “safe and secure natural habitat areas” if they regain their health. But what if fruit-rich forests suffer further losses?

“The neighboring districts of Sepaku and Samboja (intended for Nusantara) do not have wild orangutan populations,” Nurcahyo explains.

“But the orangutan rehabilitation center is located here, on 1,850 hectares of forest, which must be preserved in its current state.”

NGOs and residents fear that a new city of some 1.5 million people could be disastrous for the environment.

The influx, mainly of officials and their families from Jakarta, could force the dispossession of people and animals.

This aerial photo taken on August 28, 2019 shows the area around Sepaku, where Indonesia's new capital is to be built.

This aerial photo taken on August 28, 2019 shows the area around Sepaku, where Indonesia’s new capital is to be built.

STR/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The extent of the threat to rare wildlife will depend on ongoing planning and investigations, BOS said.

“With the unique ecosystems of East Kalimantan, it is essential to put in place a mitigation plan tailored to these specific environmental needs,” insists Nurcahyo.

“This plan is still being developed. The first step will be to assess and map the impact of the move.”

The local government promises that the environment will be protected

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Kalimantan has already experienced vast habitat loss and the killing of 2,000 to 3,000 orangutans per year since the 1970s. The orangutan is on his red list of critically endangered species.
In a century, total populations have almost halved, says the WWF — from 230,000 to approximately 112,000.

Nurcahyo says about 57,350 orangutans survive in Borneo, “spread across 42 pockets of wild population”.

The big concern is that most Kalimantan orangutans live outside protected areas. Or, as the WWF puts it, “in forests that are logged for timber production or are being converted to agriculture.”

Kato - a large male orangutan - is transported in a cage from a small boat down the Bemban River to his release site in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia in 2017.

Kato – a large male orangutan – is transported in a cage from a small boat down the Bemban River to his release site in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia in 2017.

Jonathan Perugia/In pictures/Getty Images

Officials have taken steps to allay fears about the new capital’s impact on the environment.

The Indonesian government has pledged that no protected forests will be affected in the $32 billion megaproject.

It will be “a smart city, equipped with green technologies and respectful of the environment”, promised the president while discussing the move with journalists.

East Kalimantan Governor Isran Noor told media he accepts trees will fall to make way for the 256,000 hectare (2,560 square kilometer) site, nearly four times the size of Jakarta.

“Of course there will be some sacrifices, but ultimately we aim to achieve the revitalization of the forest,” he told local newspapers. “When completed, it will have at least 70% open green space.”

Poor infrastructure as well as continued logging activities, even in nature reserves, have so far kept traditional orangutan tourism here at bay.

Now the government is eager for the new capital to attract tourists and foreign investment. But he is also aware of the importance of ecotourism and the fact that most visitors will come to see the wildlife.

Vehicles crowd a main road leading to Jakarta during the early evening rush hour on November 30, 2021.

Vehicles crowd a main road leading to Jakarta during the early evening rush hour on November 30, 2021.

Ismoyo Bay/AFP/Getty Images

The forest reserves surrounding Nusantara will play a central role in ensuring conservation efforts and sustainability, Governor Noor told the media.

The same will be true for orangutan sanctuaries.

“Nature and urbanization will coexist here”, AswinEast Kalimantan Regional Development Planning Agency Chief Bappeda Kaltim said local media.

He noted that strategic environmental studies are underway to ensure forests are taken care of.

“The important thing is that our region can become an economic, tourist and other destination.”

But he also boasted of the huge profits to come. Investment in East Kalimantan is expected to climb 34.5% against a national rise of 4.7%, he said. And economic growth will double with offshoring.

Even the buffer zone around Nusantara – from Samrinda to Balikpapan – stands to benefit from the move, he said.

“We need East Kalimantan to be shiny and sparkling.”

The Kalimantan rainforest in Borneo, Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Bustling with life, the dense greenery is home to orangutans, all kinds of birds, frogs, and more. But the rainforest will not stay that way if mining and logging continue unchecked. That’s why Dr. Eddie Game of The Nature Conservancy listens to the sounds of the rainforest to gauge the impact of human activity on the region’s wildlife.

Amid fears that all of this will come at a cost, the regional branch of the National Development Planning Agency, Bappenas, is reportedly busy consulting local communities on ecological conservation of the jungle.

glimmers of hope

Beyond the rhetoric that the jungles of Borneo are the “Paru-Paru Dunia” – “the lungs of the earth” – the burning of the forests continues. Many fires are deliberately set to clear land for agriculture.

Some fear logging, clearing and fires will only get worse as construction gets underway.

“These ecosystems are already impacted by large-scale coal mining, logging and monoculture oil palm plantations,” said Sophie Chao at the University of Sydney, an expert in ecology and indigeneity in Southeast Asia.

She believes the move means more conflict for indigenous people and thousands of species of flora and fauna.

“The East Kalimantan region is immensely rich in biodiversity, with over 133 mammals, 11 species of primates and 3,000 types of trees. They are found in a diverse mosaic of karst landscapes, peat swamps, mangroves, forests of dipterocarps and humid forests.

Against this specter, there are glimmers of hope.

Nurcayo does not rule out the possibility that moving the Indonesian capital to Borneo could draw more attention to the plight of the orangutan and bolster conservation efforts.

“It all depends on the mitigation plan and the potential ecological ramifications of the move. In the meantime, we will be relentlessly dedicated to the conservation of Bornean orangutans and their habitat.”

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