What’s a President to Do When a Nation’s Capital Is Sinking? Move It.
This is Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.
The audacious project to build a green and walkable capital city from the ground up.
Headway is an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.
Before he led the world’s fourth most populous country, the president of Indonesia was consumed by an even more challenging mission: saving Jakarta.
For two years, Joko Widodo served as the governor of a capital city that seemed to teeter on the brink of ruin. Since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, Jakarta had expanded from less than a million people to roughly 30 million. It had grown tall with skyscrapers built with fortunes made from timber, palm oil, natural gas, gold, copper, tin. But the capital had run out of space. It grew thick with traffic and pollution. Most of all, Jakarta was sinking, as thirsty residents drained its marshy aquifers and rising sea waters lapped its shores. Forty percent of the Indonesian capital now lies below sea level.
Raised in a riverside slum in a smaller city, without family ties or a military background to propel him to power, Mr. Joko derived his political strength from his connection with ordinary Indonesians. In Jakarta, he made a habit of canvassing poor neighborhoods about their needs. Residents were unaccustomed to such consideration, but they didn’t hold back: They wanted to live without worrying about the air they breathed and the water that all too often flooded their homes. And traffic. There were many complaints about traffic.
So Mr. Joko rolled up his sleeves, put on his sneakers and set about trying to fix the city. He raised sea walls and improved public transport. He later talked up the construction of a constellation of artificial islands to break the waters hitting Jakarta. His entire career, first as a carpenter and a furniture exporter and then as mayor of his hometown of Solo, had been built on building.
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
In Jakarta, however, his passion for construction could only get him so far. All the Sisyphean dredging, the endless concrete inches slathered on sea walls, the duct tape solutions could not raise Jakarta above the sea’s reach. And so Mr. Joko has turned to a different solution: If Jakarta cannot be saved, he will start over.
Mr. Joko is using his presidential authority to forsake the capital on the slender island of Java and construct a new one on Borneo, the world’s third largest island, about 800 miles away. The new capital is to be called Nusantara, meaning “archipelago” in ancient Javanese and befitting an unlikely nation of more than 17,000 islands scattered between two oceans.
Indonesia encompasses hundreds of languages and ethnic groups. Some of its regions are governed by Shariah-inspired rules, gripped by separatist fervor or animated by Indigenous traditions. It is also a secular democracy with the world’s largest Muslim citizenry, a sizable Christian minority and several other official faiths. Although deadly sectarian conflict has flared over the decades, Indonesia has cohered while other countries have come apart. A new capital city for a place with such disparities and diversity presents both a challenge and a chance for reinvention.
Moving the Seat of Power From Java to Borneo
By Leanne Abraham
Mr. Joko’s ambitions go far beyond saving Jakarta’s residents from the sea. Nusantara won’t be just any planned city, the president asserts, but a green metropolis run on renewable energy, where there are no choking traffic jams and people can stroll and bike along verdant paths. The new capital, which is known in Indonesia by its abbreviation, I.K.N., will be a paradigm for adapting to a warming planet. And it will be a high-tech city, he says, attracting digital nomads and millennials who will purchase stylish apartments with cryptocurrency.
“We want to build a new Indonesia,” Mr. Joko said. “This is not physically moving the buildings. We want a new work ethic, new mind-set, new green economy.”
The hope is to inaugurate Jakarta’s replacement in August of next year, with the unveiling of the presidential palace and other key government buildings. But while bulldozers are clearing acres of plantation forestland, not a single showcase structure has been completed.
Mr. Joko’s audacious plan will not be easy to pull off. Graft threatens the best of intentions in Indonesia. Political rivals have questioned the plan’s wisdom. Moreover, a new capital on Borneo will not change the fact that millions of people will still be left in a sinking Jakarta. Most have no wish to relocate to a faraway island, and some Borneo residents aren’t happy about the capital coming to them.
The president’s own quixotic decision-making has complicated construction. And the entire project is being rushed as Mr. Joko’s presidential term comes to a close. He has only a short time to give life, in steel and glass, to his supreme ambition: to be the leader who finally succeeded at building a new citadel for Indonesia.
The complexities facing Mr. Joko are supercharged versions of those facing other leaders of developing countries. In the colonial era, places like Jakarta, then known as Batavia, were treated as little more than way stations for natural resources dispatched back to the seats of empire. Colonial complexes sprinkled with jacaranda and bougainvillea were surrounded by shantytowns. After the birth of independent nations, urban planners had to create modern cities from these imperial bones. By the United Nations’ accounting, there are 33 megacities in the world today, each with more than 10 million people. In 1950, there was one: New York. And now these metropolises must contend with the twin perils of rapid population growth and climate change.
One response to these myriad problems is to simply begin again, to use a new urban blueprint as a national tabula rasa. In climate change parlance, the phrase is “managed retreat,” an engineered withdrawal of communities from vulnerable land. Mr. Joko’s new capital is perhaps the most daring expression of this impulse. What better way to manifest Indonesia’s hopes of progress — and those of so many countries like it — than to build a future from scratch?
“As an urban planner, I can say that there is some skepticism about I.K.N.,” said Deden Rukmana, chair of the community and regional planning department at Alabama A&M University and the editor of “The Routledge Handbook of Planning Megacities in the Global South.” “But as an Indonesian, I think we need to prove to ourselves that we can do it, we can become a global role model in building a new capital that promotes sustainability and growth.”
“I.K.N. is not just being built for Indonesians,” Professor Deden added. “It’s being built for the world. That’s why it must succeed.”
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
Mr. Joko, 61, who is affectionately known by the nickname Jokowi, doesn’t present himself as a prophet. At international gatherings, he often seems lost in the crowd. He wears a uniform of black trousers and a white button-down, with an undershirt occasionally peeking through the thin cloth. Late last year, we spent a day touring the site of the new capital. He was keen to show me what he had planned. But when his advisers tried to prod him to oratorical heights about the project underway, he summoned a list, not a legacy.
“I am executing all this,” he said. “Highways, toll roads, maritime, airports, Nusantara, a green, smart city, building Indonesia.”
Before us, heavy machinery dug into the red earth. Spindly trees fell. A retinue of aides stood at attention. Mr. Joko closed his eyes, as if conjuring a vision that only he could see.
I. A sinking city
When Emi was a girl, her family home in the Jakarta neighborhood of Pluit looked out toward the Java Sea, a fringe of sand inviting children for a swim. Brightly painted boats brought in fish to be fried with turmeric and lemongrass. At that time, Mr. Joko was carving wood in Solo, officially called Surakarta, in central Java, as yet unknown to Indonesia’s political establishment.
Over the next three decades, the sea came closer and closer to Pluit. City planners built dikes to try to stop the tides from invading, but in 2007, Ms. Emi’s home was doomed by a surge of water. Scores of Jakarta residents were killed in that season of flooding, as riverbanks and shores overflowed. More than half the city was deluged. With nowhere to go, the family rebuilt.
Today, across the lane from Ms. Emi’s home looms a concrete wall nearly seven feet high. On the other side of the embankment, just a few inches from the top at one stretch, laps seawater.
“When I grew up here, the land was higher than the sea,” Ms. Emi said. “Now, the sea is higher than the land.”
“I don’t think that’s natural,” she added.
Mr. Joko was sworn in as governor of Jakarta five years after that flood devastated Pluit. Traditionally, the post is a step to greater political heights, so many officeholders don’t take a longitudinal view of the city’s problems. But Mr. Joko did not treat it that way. He kick-started a mass transit project for a city that had few public transport options. He took taxes online to quell corruption. And he forced the relocation of about 7,000 squatters in Pluit so that the sea wall could be reinforced.
“When I grew up here, the land was higher than the sea. Now, the sea is higher than the land. I don’t think that’s natural.” — Emi, resident of Jakarta
Still, the waters rose. Calf-high flooding invaded Ms. Emi’s new living room. Three years ago, the Pluit retention structure was raised yet again. One of Mr. Joko’s successors as governor of Jakarta, a presidential hopeful named Anies Baswedan, also talked up plans for tunnels, dry dams, floodgates. But such fixes, Ms. Emi said, will never be enough. The experts agree. There is too much water.
Flooding in Jakarta is not a new problem. The Dutch colonizers tried to export their famous canals and other engineering to the flat landscape. But the artificial waterways attracted mosquitoes and bred tropical diseases. They segregated Europeans from Indonesians. And the miles of concrete controls deprived the land of the sediment carried by the 13 rivers that flow into Jakarta. Without this seasonal infusion, the soil was starved of new layers and, along with the draining of freshwater aquifers, the city began to subside and sink.
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
Deforestation, overcrowding and choked city sewers contributed to the mess. More than 10 million people are squeezed into a space half the size of New York City, with another 20 million in the greater metropolitan area. By one account, Indonesia was the world’s fourth most unequal society in 2021, and that income gap yawns in Jakarta. Impoverished residents cantilever their shacks over filthy canals or build in the shadow of luxury developments. Pylons jut; pythons slither. No matter what fixes have been tried for this energetic, vibrant capital, Jakarta sprawls and smells and sinks.
Out-of-control development has also robbed the capital of green space that would serve as a natural sponge to absorb monsoons and funnel moisture to parched aquifers. Like more than half of the city, Ms. Emi’s neighborhood has no piped running water. Every other day, she pays nearly $10 to fill a water tank from a truck.
Still, this sodden place with no water to drink or to bathe in is home. Ms. Emi shook her head at the prospect of a new capital halfway across the Indonesian archipelago.
“This is the capital, this is the big city,” she said, sweeping her hand in front of her, past a row of boys, neatly scrubbed, heading to a mosque for the dusk prayer; past men in sarongs hunched over plates of fried noodles; past the lane that led to a pumping station, where machinery tries to keep the sea from infiltrating; past mansions gated against the poor.
It was the dry season, but water oozed anyway, gray and oily.
“That other place in Borneo, it’s not even a village,” Ms. Emi said of I.K.N. “A village should not be the capital of Indonesia.”
II.The builder in chief
The presidential entourage stepped off a naval patrol boat near the site of Indonesia’s future capital. The sun shone hard and bright. A rusting dock led to a dirt path, and civil servants more accustomed to the climate-controlled privilege of Jakarta saw the dust of a giant construction site settle on their leather shoes.
Mr. Joko had offered to show me around the layout of Nusantara, dedicating a day to the tour. Throughout our visit, his convoy of attendants included cabinet ministers, geologists, botanists, surveyors, construction foremen, military officers, local power bosses, tribal chieftains who were encouraged to come bare-chested and wearing headdresses bedecked with feathers, and at least one harried person whose responsibility appeared to be carrying the presidential iPad.
In his rumpled white shirt, black trousers and white-soled black sneakers, Mr. Joko was hard to picture as the host, in a few weeks’ time, of a Group of 20 summit, standing stiffly for photo ops with other heads of state and making anodyne statements about world peace. In this swath of trees in Borneo, Mr. Joko seemed invigorated. Some of the attending bureaucrats stumbled on the hilly terrain; Mr. Joko loped along easily in his comfy shoes, rattling off statistics like a seasoned tour guide, reciting economic figures well past the decimal point.
We stopped and admired a soon-to-be-completed dam. Mr. Joko knew the exact cubic capacity of the project, along with various adjustments that had been made to its construction. Nusantara will depend almost entirely on renewable resources, he said, offering a brief soliloquy on the merits of wind, solar and hydro power generation. He vowed that the new capital would be carbon-neutral in a few decades.
We tramped down little steps to a circular concrete plaza nestled among trees. White letters set against the forest canopy announced that this was the “zero point” of Nusantara’s construction, where ground was broken last year. Mr. Joko hurried to assure me that the trees around us were from a eucalyptus plantation, not virgin rainforest. No endangered species, he said, would be harmed for his new capital.
We visited a plant nursery, where Mr. Joko, who majored in forestry engineering, pointed out the soil needs of each scrawny sapling listing in the heat. One day, he said, Nusantara would be a garden of delights, filled with endemic hardwoods that he hoped to reintroduce. Three-quarters of Nusantara will be reserved for forest, compared with less than 10 percent green space in Jakarta.
“I check on all the seedlings,” Mr. Joko said. “I check twice, my minister checks four times, and the director general checks eight times.”
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
At another stop, construction workers wearing their hard hats askew stood at attention as Mr. Joko described where the parliament building and the presidential palace — shaped like the mythical bird Garuda, a national symbol — would be. Tethered balloons tilting in the wind marked each spot. There was little evidence of actual construction. We marched on. There, he explained, would be the national mosque and other places of worship for a multifaith society. Nearly two million residents will flock to the new capital within a couple of decades, the president promised, although he demurred on whether there was enough groundwater for these future inhabitants.
At lunch — capped, Mr. Joko was careful to note, by a wild durian, locally grown — he expanded on his I.K.N. plan, describing how daily needs would be met within a 10-minute stroll or ride. In Jakarta, 16 percent of the population uses public transport; he is aiming for 80 percent in Nusantara. Closing his eyes again, Mr. Joko described the new capital’s future treasures.
“Autonomous vehicles,” he said, rapturously. “Transport hubs.”
New capitals are built for different reasons. Some are gaudy extensions of egos, like the capital of Kazakhstan, which was briefly named Nur-Sultan after the country’s longtime authoritarian leader, or Naypyidaw, a remote bunker of a city built by Myanmar’s military junta. Some, like Canberra and Washington, represent compromise between rival cities.
Still others, like Dodoma in Tanzania or Islamabad in Pakistan, were efforts to shift national centers of gravity. And another category is that of the spillover — Putrajaya in Malaysia and the as-yet-unnamed replacement to Cairo in Egypt — new administrative bases that are designed to relieve overcrowding in nearby metropolises.
Mr. Joko’s new capital is being built for most of these reasons. Moving the capital was the ambition of the authoritarian leaders of Indonesia’s past, but its democratically elected president has used his power to make it a priority. During the Covid-19 pandemic, as Indonesia’s legislature dithered over city planning, Mr. Joko pushed through a national law that covers the smallest details for Nusantara, including the minimum size of a civil servant’s living quarters. He got more than $30 billion earmarked for the project.
“If you build a new city, it will take time. It cannot be overnight, it’s not like Aladdin comes with his genie,” said Bambang Susantono, the head of the Nusantara Capital City Authority. “We have to prove that this will be a self-propelling city.”
In fact, I.K.N.’s construction is being rushed to meet a tight deadline: the end, in 2024, of Mr. Joko’s term in office. Architects were given 10 days to submit proposals for some of the capital’s showpiece buildings. The first phase of the city is expected to be completed in just two years. The urgency is born of anxiety: Without Mr. Joko’s imprimatur, the capital project could founder, leaving the jungle to reclaim half-built ministries. Mr. Anies, the former Jakarta governor and a likely contender in next year’s presidential election, has expressed opposition to the new capital.
“If you build a new city, it will take time, it cannot be overnight. It’s not like Aladdin comes with his genie. We have to prove that this will be a self-propelling city.” — Bambang Susantono, head of the Nusantara Capital City Authority
Critics of I.K.N. note that the government will only commit to 20 percent of the projected cost. The rest of the funding is supposed to come from domestic and foreign investors. Few Indonesian firms have banked rupiah for the venture. SoftBank, the Japanese tech conglomerate, pulled away last year. Countries that Mr. Joko says are interested in investing, like Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, haven’t signed major contractual commitments.
Still, a local poll put Mr. Joko’s approval rating at 76 percent in January. Political watchers wonder whether he will try to extend his presidency beyond the term limit, giving him time to see the project through. He has also begun to align himself with another presumed presidential contender who is supportive of I.K.N.
Before setting off for Nusantara, the presidential entourage visited a market in the oil town of Balikpapan on the eastern coast of Borneo. Shoppers clasped Mr. Joko’s hands to their foreheads, a sign of reverence. There was a lot of screaming and frenzied selfie-taking. Mr. Joko asked residents about the price of yam leaves and cooking oil. A woman lectured him about the rising cost of tempeh, fermented soybean cakes. What was Mr. President going to do about it, she asked. Mr. Joko promised to look into it. A note taker appeared by the president’s side, amid the scrum of shoppers and security, and wrote down the price shift in tempeh down to the smallest coin.
III. Starting over
Sitting on the 28th floor of a Jakarta skyscraper, the view obscured by smog, Sibarani Sofian sighed. Scattered around him — on the walls, across the table in unruly piles, in rolled loops on the floor — were plans for Nusantara, a jewel of a metropolis in a forest.
In 2019, nearly 300 firms bid for a chance to create the master plan for Indonesia’s new capital. Few were more surprised than Mr. Sibarani when he was named the winner. He had a strong reputation at multinational urban design firms and later set up his own outfit, but he was under no illusion that he was the next Oscar Niemeyer, who designed Brasília, or Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the mind behind Washington, D.C.
“I thought, Why don’t they get an internationally famous architect to build the new capital?” Mr. Sibarani said. “I thought, We should really have someone more qualified to do this.”
Mr. Sibarani nonetheless threw himself into the project. He got to know Borneo’s landscape and its local architectural traditions. “Borneo is famous for its tropical rainforests, and I feel strongly that, as an Indonesian building the new capital, the plan should emulate nature,” he said.
His blueprint for a new Indonesian capital includes stilted buildings and elevated walkways that link to transportation hubs so residents can bypass Nusantara’s hilly terrain. The design loosely mimics the natural layering of a tropical canopy, allowing for cooling breezes and rainwater dispersal to reduce soil subsidence.
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
When constructing the capital of the Dutch East Indies, the colonializers built squat, thick-walled houses, just like back home. The buildings baked in the heat. Indonesia’s vernacular architecture, with its soaring wooden profiles, allows for better air circulation and water drainage.
Mr. Sibarani said he hoped that Nusantara’s design would encourage other developing countries to build cities inspired by their own customs and environments, rather than aping Western conventions. But his vision for Nusantara began to erode even before ground was broken last year. When Mr. Joko visited the region, he took in the view from a helipad perched on a hill. The hillside made for a good photo op — a commanding leader inspecting his new domain — and soon after, Mr. Sibarani said, he was informed that the site of the new city would be moved upland by about three kilometers, away from the flat spot nestled in the bay where he had wanted to build.
“We do what Mr. President says, and I just implement his vision for Nusantara,” Basuki Hadimuljono, the minister of public works and public housing, told me when I asked about the shifting plans. “Mr. President is always looking for the wow factor.”
In Indonesia, this is known by the abbreviation A.B.S.: Asal Bapak Senang, or “as long as the boss is happy.”
Mr. Joko’s order placed Nusantara in an undulating landscape where, Mr. Sibarani said, only 30 percent of the land should properly support construction. By the end of next year 60,000 people are supposed to move in, but not a single residential tower has been built for them. The local soil includes thin clay that, if left untreated, cannot easily support blocks of skyscrapers that would maximize the available space. Mr. Sibarani and other planners are worried about how the earth will bear the load when construction is rushed on a tight time frame.
“Nature will not be happy if we build like this,” Mr. Sibarani said.
The urban design was further complicated last year when Mr. Joko traveled to Moscow. The Russian capital’s broad avenues, with their capacity for grand spectacle, impressed him. Another presidential directive came down: broaden the main avenue in I.K.N. to six one-way lanes with a larger right of way. No matter that such a wide avenue contradicted the walkable, efficient ethos Mr. Joko had championed. The president’s wish for an enlarged footprint for the presidential palace threw off the city’s proportions, too.
“Nature will not be happy if we build like this.” — Sofian Sibarani, designer of the new capital
“You give birth to a baby and hope it has two eyes, normal features,” Mr. Sibarani said. “And it turns out it looks like a Cyclops.”
Mr. Sibarani took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. In the conference room, some of the blueprints for the heart of Nusantara were crinkled. Others had been cast aside. He looked at a scale model of the new capital, bits of foam board glued together in diminishing concentric circles to represent the uneven terrain.
The top had detached from one hill. He swept it away apologetically.
IV. Sons of the soil
Borneo, which is shared with the countries of Malaysia and Brunei, is home to some of the world’s largest tracts of primary rainforest, bursting with about 15,000 plant species. In these humid jungles live orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and clouded leopards — though fewer than there used to be. About half of Borneo’s rainforests were cut down in the four decades before 2015, much of it illegally, based on satellite analysis by environmental groups.
Much of the future capital’s sprawl is on land that was supposed to be protected from urban development, including part of an officially designated national park. Environmental groups say they still have not seen an environmental impact assessment for I.K.N. Although local officials trumpet the area’s commitment to conservation, timber, paper and oil palm plantations spread across the hills down to the bay. The national park itself is pockmarked with coal mines. A crackdown last year on illegal mining in the preserve had little effect. One of the supposedly shuttered mines still has bulldozers trundling across its scarred landscape.
These facts on the ground show the chasm between Mr. Joko’s ambitions — a clean, green city for a clean, green nation! — and the reality of a country where the destruction of virgin rainforest is propelled by rampant corruption. (The country ranks 110th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2022 corruption perception index.) The seeds of Indonesia’s problems — graft, overcrowding, environmental pillaging, cultural degradation — flourish here, too.
Mr. Joko has repeatedly called for moratoriums on forest-clearing, and he has had success in taming the theft of rainforest for the palm oil industry in parts of Indonesia. But local leaders have considerable autonomy to issue permits for the extraction of natural resources. East Kalimantan, the province that surrounds I.K.N., provides 60 percent of Indonesia’s coal exports. Last year, in part because of soaring energy prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Indonesia shipped a record amount of coal overseas. In recent months, some Nusantara planners have backed away from committing the new capital fully to renewable energy.
“Indonesia is notorious for having good laws that are poorly implemented,” said Eka Permanasari, an associate professor of urban design at Monash University, Indonesia. “There is the possibility that Nusantara can be a reference for future cities, but that depends on what’s on paper being implemented in the field.”
The original inhabitants of Nusantara’s forests know well the heartbreak of navigating Indonesian rules and regulations. Beginning in the 1960s, members of the Balik Indigenous group were told that the terrain they once roamed wasn’t really theirs. After all, where were their property deeds? Businessmen from Jakarta snapped up timber, rubber and oil palm concessions in the East Kalimantan rainforest. Migrant workers arrived, too, as part of a program called transmigrasi, which helped to alleviate overcrowding in Java by giving land rights to people willing to resettle in remote regions. Javanese now make up the largest ethnic group in East Kalimantan. Primary rainforest gave way to transmigrasi villages and monoculture.
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
Pandi Jonadi, a Balik elder, lives in a settlement close to the Nusantara dam construction site. Nearly 100 Balik families were forced into the village after the forest they had used for generations was taken for a timber plantation in 1969. That land includes what would one day become Nusantara’s “zero point.”
“The government treats us like their trash,” he told me. He was sitting on wood-patterned vinyl flooring in his house, waving away the insects swarming a fluorescent light. His mustache bristled. “They respect endangered species even more than us humans.”
Once the dam is completed, the hamlet where the Balik were forcibly relocated will be destroyed. Capital development officials say they have been working with the community to ensure they will be moved safely and compensated adequately. Mr. Pandi said that since his village was slated for destruction, no official had given him specifics about resettlement. Land speculation is driving up local real estate prices.
“All they told us is that we can sell Balik souvenirs to tourists who come to visit the dam,” Mr. Pandi said. “That’s not enough.”
The governor of East Kalimantan, Isran Noor, is a member of another Indigenous tribe. Before his province was chosen for Nusantara, he said he opposed any force that would destroy local forests. He had grown up, he said, revering nature as a “son of the soil.”
Now, however, Mr. Isran is an enthusiastic supporter of the new capital. He joined us on the tour and enjoyed face time with the president. New jobs and new technology, he said, would help the province develop. And whether the land became eucalyptus farms or oil palm plantations or remained virgin rainforest, “it’s just changing one type of vegetation for another,” as he put it.
Certainly, the big landholders in the region, and the companies they have been associated with, stand to profit. One is Mr. Joko’s foreign investment adviser, a mining and agriculture magnate. Another is the brother of Indonesia’s defense minister. In a previous job, Mr. Isran was in charge of dispensing dozens of permits for coal mines not far from the I.K.N. site.
“No one in East Kalimantan is unhappy about the new capital,” Mr. Isran said. “No one.”
V.A fresh start
On a hill above the construction site for the presidential palace, a man named Roni stepped down from his truck and wiped away sweat. He was glad for the work ferrying loads of earth. It paid $110 a month, better than his previous hours spent at a coal mine. But he was nonetheless baffled by the project.
“I have no idea why Jokowi wants to put the capital here,” Mr. Roni said, laughing. “But I’m glad we have his attention.”
Mr. Roni is Dayak — a broad term for a grouping of Indigenous peoples in Borneo that includes the Balik. The Dayak have been treated as cultural curiosities for centuries, both by Europeans and by others from the Indonesian archipelago. But from Mr. Roni’s perspective, Mr. Joko is a leader for all kinds of Indonesians.
No other president had bothered to visit local Dayak communities repeatedly, Mr. Roni said. No other president had committed to providing local people with so many jobs. And no other leader had made them feel that their little part of a big island was as much a part of Indonesia as Java was.
The president’s commitment to Indonesia’s many peoples is not new, even if reformers have been disappointed by the malleability of that dedication. In 1998, Mr. Joko defended terrified Chinese Indonesians when pogroms erupted, part of a pattern of deadly persecution of the minority group. While governor of Jakarta, he chose as his deputy an ethnic Chinese Christian. His deputy, who became governor, was later imprisoned for blasphemy, a conviction that human rights groups said was politically motivated, driven by enemies of Mr. Joko’s secular administration.
Mr. Joko, like every president of Indonesia save one, is Javanese. Moving the capital to Borneo is a statement of intent, an attempt to redistribute the country’s economic and demographic heft away from a single island.
Mr. Joko, who is not prone to rhetorical embellishments, is a poor spokesman for Nusantara. And yet excavators and bulldozers, backhoes and loaders, cranes and cement mixers rumble through the forest like columns of Borneo fire ants. Mr. Joko’s vision is expressed through these machines that dig and shift and build.
“If my children and my grandchildren can experience living in the capital of Indonesia,” Mr. Roni said, “that will be amazing.”
Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times
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