Throwback: Jakarta’s capital city move explained

Posted on 3 March, 2021

Bahasa Indonesia Version.

Article written by: Fahry Slatter – AIYA National Blog Editor

Artwork by Candra – AIYA Graphic Design Officer, oversight by Vania – AIYA Communications Coordinator

Translation by Adolf Ricardo – AIYA National Translator

What is happening in Jakarta that is making the government want to move to a new capital? It was supposed to be the most ambitious project in Indonesia. What happened? 

If you Google “Borneo”, you’ll find mostly pictures of thick, dense jungle and palm oil plantations. A map of Borneo reveals that it’s all green, virgin rainforests that would be idyllic for the setting of a Tarzan movie remake. However, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo looked at Borneo, then smiled, and with a grin on his face, hopped onto a plane straight for a little dot located in the island’s East.

Thus, this is why Indonesia is hoping to move its capital.

The ambitious plan to move the capital became a big deal, not just in Indonesia, but also to non-Indonesians who don’t even live in Indonesia. It wasn’t long until YouTubers started uploading explainers and provided theories and guesswork on why it’s moving.

There appears to be plenty of confusion as to why it’s happening and why on the island of Borneo of all places.

What is happening in Jakarta that is making the government want to move to a new capital?

To fully understand the problem with Jakarta, we first need to understand what city Jakarta was based off of: Amsterdam. Jakarta was built by the Dutch to make it look as close to home as possible, so Dutch merchants would feel like they never even left home.

Amsterdam 1875 Map (Left), modern Amsterdam (right) – Source: Maps of Europe

Take a look at the map of Amsterdam above. The first thing you’ll notice is that there is plenty of water around it. This bustling port city was the main hub of the Netherlands, the centre of business for the Dutch and it was built along the Amstel river because trade back then was all done by boats and was home to merchants, fishermen and politicians. The city was built around a dike meant to protect the mainland from the ZuidZee (South Sea). Amsterdam was also lucky because it had protection from Sphagnum that came the Oude-Rijn and Spaarne river, which formed clay and sand dunes that essentially protected it from the North sea.

Now take a look at the map of Jakarta.

Map of 1733 Jakarta/Batavia (left) vs modern Jakarta (right) – Source: Homann c.1733, Global Mapping Uk

Immediately, it can be seen that Jakarta is far larger and far denser. It is also important to note that when Jakarta was built, no dams or dikes were engineered. Although some parts of Northern Jakarta were similar to Amsterdam, it brought with it several problems.

Jakarta Old City (1775), source: Vue de la Ville maps

Jakarta is sinking

The northern part of Jakarta is mostly built on mangrove and swamplands. Some readers might be familiar with Muara Angke (Angke Mangrove). Soil engineering was not accounted for (which wasn’t a thing back then), the unforeseeable fate of climate change and how the local indigenous population lived. Groundwater pumps have caused the soil underneath to collapse in on itself, and without any proper aquifers, the ground is sinking, which lead to costly floods that cost human lives as well as monetary.

In fact, the very same problem happens in Amsterdam today. 11,350 km away the same problem is present. The Netherlands however, have dealt and anticipated this problem since the 16th century, and thus why there are plenty of dams and windmills in the Netherlands.

In 2014, Jakarta has built a seawall in hopes as part of damage control, but it was a little over 400 years too late.

The Great Jakarta Traffic Jam 0f 2015-2016

Jakarta has consistently ranked as the city with the worst traffic jam in 2015, 2016, and placing in the top 10 hereafter. Jakarta – as you may know- is not a very walk-able city. A car or motorbike is practically needed to get anywhere and current road and public transport infrastructure just can’t cope with the volume of traffic, says Yudhistira et. al (2016). Jakarta is just not a walk-able city and the civil infrastructure can’t keep up with the volume of growth and development.

Indonesia turns to Canberra for inspiration

This time, the soon to be capital will be modeled after a different city, one that’s closer to home: Canberra. You might be surprised to find a link between Australia’s capital, Canberra and the unnamed soon-to-be capital city in Indonesia. President Jokowi has made it clear that the new capital should be green and modern.

The map of Canberra reveals some interesting details. Firstly, there’s a lot of open green space. The landscaping had kept in mind the environment and current conditions. Canberra kept a balance and consistency between green area and urban spaces. Furthermore, the general architecture in Canberra sits comfortably with the surrounding area, making everything feel natural.

Borneo

There’s more than meets the eye in Borneo. It’s the 3rd largest island in the world, you can theoretically fit the entire UK and Norway, and borders 2 other countries: Malaysia and Brunei.

Map of Borneo – Source: Mortadelo (2005)

Remember that most of Borneo is green, which makes it an ideal location, as the government can start off with a fresh, clean slate to work with. The city expected to be the capital, Palangkaraya, sits by the South East part of Borneo, which is geographically the centre of Indonesia. 

The Banana Republic of Borneo

A banana republic is a term used to describe a country/state whose main economy comes from a single export and could destabilize should that export cease to exist.

The land of my fathers and mothers, now turned into Palm Oil plantations. Photo by Andrew Slatter (2008).

Currently, Borneo is renowned for its palm oil plantations and it is the state’s bread and butter. The only roads and infrastructure currently in Borneo have been built to support these plantations, which has brought plenty of controversy, specifically in the EU. The European Union states have decidedly placed an import ban on any products using palm oil. This could leave thousands of people unemployed, as Indonesia and Malaysia accounts for 85% of the entire world’s Palm Oil exports. A ban like this could deal double the damage to Borneo’s economy.

2 years later – Dreams/fantasies or a reality?

Due to current circumstances of the pandemic, talks about capital cities have gone very quiet. It has certainly caused a massive leak in Indonesia’s economy, and President Jokowi has to turn its attention to the coronavirus issue first. This has essentially made the situation a two steps forward, one step back. Moving the capital can cause a multiplier effect, as the massive construction and development can take a large chunk of the population out of unemployment, but right now it is uncertain when the plan is going ahead.