Sepaku, East Kalimantan – The 68-year-old Sernai lives in a wooden house that once belonged to her great-great-grandparents.
It is a simple house – there are no glass windows and it is largely unfurnished.
She has lived here all her life. But her village is no longer the peaceful place she associates with her childhood. These days, she wakes up every morning to the sound of heavy machinery in her backyard.
Indonesia is building a new capital in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The city will be called Nusantara and will replace the current capital Jakarta, an overcrowded and polluted metropolis and the fastest sinking city in the world.
Sernai’s village, where she lives with other Balik Indians, will eventually become part of the new town.
“People are coming from the capital. They push us out. Eventually they will take my house,” she told Al Jazeera. She lost part of her home and farmland due to the construction of an inlet reservoir for a dam to serve the new capital. “We can’t even get water 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 no longer reach it.”
Sernai said the government has given her family, including her 17 grandchildren, about $3,000 in compensation.
But she said it’s not enough to make up for the disruption of their lives.
“We used to plant coconuts and plums. There were rows of trees and they are all gone now. We had all kinds of fruits that we could sell in the market, like mango. Now we can’t sell anything,” she said. “We used to live well, we never had to buy things like wood, water or vegetables. Now we live miserable lives,” Sernai said.
‘Sacrificed in the name of national development’
The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of Nusantara (AMAN) estimates that at least 20,000 Indigenous people will move as construction on Nusantara progresses.
“Indigenous peoples 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 a migration of people from other places. Indigenous people will eventually be driven off their land, it’s only a matter of time. Development must not violate the human rights of indigenous peoples, they cannot simply be sacrificed in the name of national development.”
Advocacy groups like AMAN say one of the biggest challenges for Indigenous peoples is demonstrating land ownership to get compensation.
“Indigenous landholdings are not considered highly legal if there is no certificate. So they are considered to be residing on land they don’t own,” Arman said. “The inheritance of land in indigenous communities is not seen as legal.”
Atim, who is also Balik, told Al Jazeera he fears he could soon lose his land to development.
“My plantation is inherited from my ancestors. Many of us have no documents. Our evidence 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 already felt the impact of the development of water absorption. They said they only needed one or two metres, but they ended up taking up more and more land.”
Atim said he feels his community is being disrespected and disenfranchised by the Indonesian government. A few weeks ago, he found poles in his plantation with the letters IKN – Ibu Kota Negara, meaning the country’s capital – painted on them. He said no one told him what the stakes mean.
They pretend we don’t exist. They act like we’re not human. I accept the new capital, but do not renounce our rights. They want to build something by destroying what is already there,” he said. “There is no communication. They involve people from other districts, but never us. We don’t know what’s going on.”
‘Space for dialogue’
The head of the Nusantara Capital Authority is Bambang Susantono, an engineer and economist who was appointed to lead the project in early 2022.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, he said the government is taking steps to involve indigenous peoples and increase their participation. “We have to respect them. The indigenous people, the local wisdom. That should be part of our development process,” he said. “We will give some space for dialogue so that they can dialogue with us. but with all stakeholders.Sometimes there can be disagreements, so we need to look at the social and anthropological studies related to this and use that as material for these cases.
The government has promoted initiatives such as training programs for the local population as representative of the benefits the new capital development will bring to people in East Kalimantan. Some of these include workshops to teach people digital skills or new farming techniques.
Al Jazeera met some Sepaku residents who were proud participants in such programs – they said these initiatives had changed their lives for the better.
Sri Sudarwati, whose parents migrated to East Kalimantan in the 1970s, took part in a training course to learn hydroponic planting techniques with her neighbors. She said the new capital project and the attention it has attracted to her village has improved her quality of life.
“With the new capital, they have opened up so many training opportunities. This hydroponic gardening has greatly helped my family’s income. My life has completely changed,” she says. “We never got any attention for the new capital plan. People didn’t know where Sepaku was, we were very retarded. I want to advise other people, don’t think too much. Let’s be thankful that Sepaku is part of the capital.”
Such advice is poorly received by Balik people, including their leader Sibukdin, who told Al Jazeera he fears the development will spell disaster for his community.
“We don’t want to be moved from the land of our ancestors. And we feel that our country will be taken by the government. They said this capital is for the good of all Indonesians? But which Indonesians? We don’t feel like it’s for us,” he said. “They can easily erase our rights. That is the greatness of people in authority. We consider our historic sites to be the source of our strength. But they even moved the graves of our ancestors. The new capital haunts us, and also the future of our children.”