Big Move to Borneo

Indonesia will move its capital to Borneo

Jakarta, the current capital of Indonesia, faces crippling traffic congestion, worsening air pollution, and the threat of losing land to rising sea levels. (Yang Gundul/Flickr)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who was reelected to serve his second term in office this year, announced last week that the country will move forward with plans to relocate its capital from the megacity Jakarta to the island of Borneo. As AN reported in May, the move will allow the Indonesian government to conduct its operations in a city that is less crowded and less congested than the current capital, which currently faces serious threats from natural disasters. The BBC reported last year that Jakarta is one of the world’s fastest sinking cities—a predicament that imperils its 10 million residents (30 million if you include the metropolitan area).

Widodo’s most recent announcement clarified some of the details of the move, including which province will host the new capital. East Kalimantan spans much of the eastern coast of Borneo—an island that Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei—and has three main population centers: Balikpapan, Samarinda, and Bontang. Rather than crowning one of the existing cities as Indonesia’s new capital, a new settlement will be built on government-owned land between Balikpapan and Samarinda. The location was chosen over Indonesia’s many other islands and provinces because of its location at the geographic center of the country and relative lack of natural disasters. While Java, Sulawesi, and other islands have been struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and major storms in recent years, East Kalimantan has sustained little damage. The province benefits from comparatively well-developed infrastructure but is also well-known for deforestation as palm oil plantations have expanded throughout Borneo’s jungles.



Perhaps looking to avoid accusations of escapism, Widodo has assured the Indonesian public that the relocation of the capital does not represent a wholesale abandonment of Jakarta. The metropolis will continue to serve as Indonesia’s financial center, and the national government will invest in measures to mitigate the effects of crippling traffic and climate change. Officials also hope that moving government operations out of the city will help to alleviate strains on the city’s infrastructure. Still, the relocation effort will be an expensive endeavor, with most estimates placing the total cost of moving the capital at 466 trillion rupiah, or $33 billion. Widodo has indicated that funding will come from a combination of public funds, state-run enterprises, private corporations, and public-private partnerships.

Even with the criticism that Widodo and local officials in Jakarta have faced over the city’s increasing dysfunction, moving the capital may seem like an extreme step, but several countries have made similar moves in history. The United States commissioned Pierre Charles L’Enfant to concoct a plan for a new capital city in 1791, which led to the development of what is now known as Washington, D.C. in a sparsely-populated swamp. In the 1950s, Brazil decided to relocate its capital from Rio de Janeiro to the hinterland, where it built the current capital city of Brasilia as a modernist beacon of the country’s progress. In many cases, including that of Indonesia, leaders have cited capital relocation as a strategy to bring investment to less developed parts of a country.

Still, the decision to move the seat of government away from Jakarta marks a significant moment in Indonesian history. Formerly known by its Dutch name Batavia, the port city has served as the nation’s capital since it gained full independence in 1949 and as the capital of the Dutch East Indies for centuries before that. In the precolonial era, the settlement served as the seat of several kingdoms and sultanates. 

Widodo and the Indonesian government have indicated that they intend to begin construction on the new city as early as 2021, with the actual relocation of the capital slated to begin in 2024.

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