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Indonesia's President Unveils Plan To Move Capital From Jakarta To Borneo

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Indonesia's president wants to move his country's capital from Jakarta to the island of Borneo. That's because Jakarta is sinking. It is also plagued by pollution and infrastructure problems. President Joko Widodo suggested the move months ago. Today, he gave details of the plan.

So how feasible is this? Well, to answer that question, we have called Erik Meijaard. He's a conservation scientist and founder of an environmental consulting firm called Borneo futures. Erik Meijaard, welcome.

ERIK MEIJAARD: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Why is Jakarta sinking?

MEIJAARD: Oh, it's a long story. Jakarta's been sinking for quite some time. It's basically been built on a swamp. It has had a problem with too much rainwater coming in. You have people withdrawing a lot of water for water consumption, and we have an increasing problem with flooding in the city. Sea levels are going up, so there's been long-term plans to establish a coastal seawall that would reduce some of that. But these developments have taken too much time, and the president of Indonesia has finally said it's enough; we're going to move the capital to another part of Indonesia.

KELLY: I mentioned that there are other problems, too - pollution. Infrastructure is a mass. Those also factors in this plan.

MEIJAARD: Yeah, it's - I lived in Jakarta for about 10 years, and it's got a pretty nightmarish traffic situation. And with that, it's got really quite bad air pollution. A 5-mile commute could take you anything from, like, an hour to three hours. I guess in the end, the government has said, enough is enough; we're going to try to move at least part of these cities' functions and the government part to another part of Indonesia.

KELLY: Why not try to fix some of these problems rather than just pick up sticks and move the whole capital?

MEIJAARD: Well, good question. And of course, removing a million people from the capital and moving them somewhere else is going to reduce the amount of traffic and so on. I don't think it's going to stop the city from sinking, so I don't know what the backup plans are for actually improving the quality of life in Jakarta itself as the capital is moved somewhere else.

KELLY: And as you mentioned, the - moving the capital - so moving government offices and institutions - would move something like a million people out of Jakarta. But that would still leave millions and millions of people living in Jakarta, not all of whom would move. I mean, the city would continue.

MEIJAARD: I think the - the city will continue as it is. It's still the heart of all economic activity, of business. The plan to move the capital of Jakarta somewhere else is nearly 60 years old. The first Indonesian president, I think, in 1957 already came up with plans. In fact, they build a city in another part of Indonesian Borneo that was going to be the new capital.

Now, that didn't happen. But - so these plans are - have been around for a long time, and this has also got to do with taking the center of Indonesia's power, which is now concentrated on the island of Java, more centrally to Indonesia.

KELLY: So the proposed new location in Borneo - is that a better choice for a capital?

MEIJAARD: It's not too bad. I've lived in the area for quite some time. There is tropical rainforest, and the government has emphasized that they want this to be a really green development. There's going to be no deforestation. There's going to be very smart planning. Of course, environmentalists like myself are concerned about what is going to happen once you move a million people into a relatively sparsely part of Indonesian Borneo. That likely will have significant impacts on the environment.

KELLY: So how serious a proposal do you think this is? Is it likely the capital actually will move?

MEIJAARD: Good question. I mean, it's the first time a president - Indonesian president has said, this is what we're going to do. And they're doing it pretty quickly - by 2024, which is in four or five years from now.

KELLY: That was the timeline that the president laid out today.

MEIJAARD: That's correct. Yeah. So it's a pretty tight time schedule in which they'll need to do a lot of development. I mean, there's nothing there. The area where they're going to develop the city is a protected forest. But there is not much infrastructure, apart from one highway that runs through it. So everything needs to be developed from scratch, which is going to be a massive challenge.

KELLY: That is Erik Meijaard of the environmental consulting firm Borneo Futures. Erik Meijaard, thanks for talking to us.

MEIJAARD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.