Sepaku, East Kalimantan – 68-year-old Sernai lives in a wooden house that once belonged to his great-grandparents.
It was a simple house — no glass in the windows, and almost no furniture.
He has lived here all his life. But his village is no longer the quiet place he associates with his childhood. These days, he wakes up every morning to the sound of heavy machinery in his backyard.
Indonesia is building a new capital city in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The city will be called Nusantara, and it will replace the current capital Jakarta, a crowded and polluted metropolis and the fastest sinking city in the world.
Sernai’s village, where he lives with fellow Balik Indigenous people, will become part of the new city.
“The people from the capital will come. They push us out. They will take my house eventually,” he told Al Jazeera. He lost part of his house and farmland due to the construction of an intake reservoir for a dam to service the new capital. “We are not getting water anymore. because the river is blocked. The river used to be our source of life. We drank from it, bathed in it, and used it for cooking. Now we can’t access it.”
Sernai said the government gave his family, which includes his 17 grandchildren, about $3,000 in compensation.
But he said it wasn’t enough to make up for the disruption in their lives.
“We used to grow coconuts and plums. There were rows of trees, and they are all gone now. We have all kinds of fruits that we can sell in the market, like mangoes. Now, we have nothing to sell,” she said. “We used to live good lives, we never had to buy things like wood, water or vegetables. Now, our lives are miserable,” Sernai said.
‘Sacrificed in the name of national development’
The Indigenous People’s Alliance of Nusantara (AMAN) estimates that at least 20,000 indigenous people will be displaced as construction progresses in Nusantara.
“Indigenous people also need development, but this kind of development will destroy them,” said Muhammad Arman of AMAN. “When the new capital is fully developed, there will be migration of people from other areas. Indigenous people will go to their land, just for a moment. Development should not violate the human rights of Indigenous people, they are not just- as long as it can be sacrificed in the name of national development.”
Advocacy groups like AMAN say one of the main challenges for Indigenous people is proving land ownership in order to get compensation.
“Land ownership by natives is not considered to have strong legality, if there is no certificate. So, they are considered to be staying on land that does not belong to them,” Arman said. “Inheritance of land to indigenous communities is not seen as legal.”
Atim, who is also a Balik, told Al Jazeera that he fears that his land will soon be lost to development.
“My plantation was inherited from my ancestors. So many of us don’t have documents. Our proof is in our history. Back then, things weren’t complicated, people didn’t need written things. Now we have to prove our ownership,” he said. “Many people have felt the impact of the development of water use. They said they only needed one or two meters, but they ended up taking more land.
Atim said he feels his community is being disrespected and disenfranchised by the Indonesian government. A few weeks ago, he found stakes in his plantation with the letters IKN — Ibu Kota Negara, meaning the nation’s capital — painted on them. He said no one told him what the stakes meant.
“They act like we don’t exist. They are not human. I welcome the new capital but don’t take away our rights. They want to build something by destroying what is already here,” he said. “There is no communication. They involve people from other districts, but not us. We don’t know what is going on.”
‘Room for dialogue’
The head of the Nusantara Capital Authority is Bambang Susantonoan engineer and economist appointed to lead the project in early 2022.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, he said the government is taking steps to include Indigenous people and to allow them to be more involved. “We have to respect them. The natives, the local wisdom. That should be part of our development process,” he said. “We will give some room for dialogue, so they can have a dialogue with us. Not just us but all stakeholders. Sometimes, there may be disagreements, so we have to look at social and anthropological studies related to this and put that as materials for these cases.”
The government has promoted initiatives such as training programs for locals as representative of the benefits that the new capital development will offer to the people of East Kalimantan. Some of those include workshops to teach people digital skills or new farming techniques.
Al Jazeera met several Sepaku residents who are proud participants in such programs — they say these initiatives have changed their lives for the better.
Sri Sudarwati, whose parents moved to East Kalimantan in the 1970s, participated in training to learn hydroponic planting techniques with her neighbors. He said the new capital project, and the attention it has brought to his village, has improved his quality of life.
“In the new capital, they opened up so many training opportunities. This hydroponic gardening has helped my family’s income a lot. My life has completely changed,” he said. “Before the new capital plan, we didn’t get any attention. People don’t know where Sepaku is, we are so backward. I want to advise other people, don’t think too much. Let’s be thankful for being part of Sepaku in the capital.”
Such advice was not well received by the Baliks, including their leader Sibukdin, who told Al Jazeera he feared the development would spell disaster for his community.
“We don’t want to be moved to the land of our ancestors. And we feel that the government will take our land. They say this capital is for the benefit of all Indonesians? But who are Indonesians? We feel it is not for us,” he said. “They can easily erase our rights. Such is the greatness of people in authority. We consider our historical places to be the source of our power. But they even moved the graves of our ancestors. The new capital haunts us, and so does the future of our children.