Climate and Urban Development: Uncovering Societal Injustice in Indonesia’s New Capital

Nusantara in The Making: An Introduction

Indonesia’s plan to establish a new capital city, called Nusantara, is indeed an extravagant move made by the Government. The decision to move the capital from Jakarta, which faces significant environmental challenges, including sinking land, rising sea levels, and severe traffic congestion, highlights the Government’s commitment to creating a more sustainable and climate-resilient urban center (Johansyah et al., 2019). This plan is considered an opportunity for creating a sustainable city and community and prioritizing climate resilience for the new capital. However, some parties have concerns about the implications that will be brought by the Government’s plan, mainly by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as WALHI (The Indonesia Forum for the Environment) and JATAM (Mining Advocacy Network). These parties have called the plan for urban expansions to the island of Borneo an all-out hypocrisy of “sustainable development” (Guild, 2023; Indonesia Unveils Construction Site of New Capital City, 2023). With climate change issues becoming ever-increasingly significant for the past decades, public perspectives tend to support these NGOs as they are highly pessimistic towards their national leaders’ commitments. However, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, assures the public unrest with the promise of bringing “a smooth transition” for the indigenous people within this development plan (President Jokowi Says New Capital Construction Now Underway, n.d.). Nevertheless, the plan has some initial pitfalls for the indigenous people living in the surrounding area. The injustice problem is then highlighted in this writing to give an analytical contribution, mainly discussing several pitfalls of the capital’s relocation.

The Lens of ‘Doughnut’ Economic Development

The “Doughnut Economy” is a concept that was introduced by economist Kate Raworth (2017) in her book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.” It presents a new framework for economic development that seeks to balance social and planetary issues. The central idea behind the Doughnut Economy is to create an economic system within the “doughnut,” representing a safe and just space for humanity. The inner circle of the doughnut represents the social foundation, which outlines the minimum standards for human well-being, such as access to food, water, healthcare, education, and social equity. The outer circle represents the ecological ceiling, which defines the planetary boundaries we must not exceed to avoid environmental degradation and climate change. The goal of the Doughnut Economy is to ensure that human activity remains within the doughnut’s boundaries, simultaneously meeting the needs of all people while safeguarding the Earth’s ecosystems. It calls for economic policies and practices prioritizing social well-being and environmental sustainability over unlimited GDP growth (Raworth, 2017). This approach challenges the traditional notion that economic growth is the sole measure of progress and advocates for a more holistic approach that considers social justice and environmental stewardship. Within the boundaries of the ‘doughnut economic development’, this writing will try to discuss why the plan for the capital’s relocation may be seen as “unfair”.

Unmasking Setbacks of the Capital’s Relocation Plan

Using the Doughnut Economic model, this paper will emphasize that approaches to urban development in the case of Indonesia’s New Capital should be prioritized to enhance economic growth and meet ecological standards to prevent overuse and overconsumption. While the Government made claims to include sustainable structures for the surrounding areas, the issue of justice is still eminent. This model will be used to construct a critical and moral perspective towards the case of Nusantara, specifically on deconstructing ideas of economic growth solely based on GDP, the question of justice for the indigenous people, and the problem of loss and damages.

‘Western’ Ideas of Development: National vs. Local

               National plans for this relocation are filled with ideas of Westernized development models. Government-led initiatives for the project are currently receiving critiques from the public for only replicating ideas of an ‘ideal’ society based on Western values and judgments (Johansyah et al., 2019). The idea of expansion from this plan was mainly pushed by the need to capitalize and make use of unattended land for the greater purpose of increasing foreign investment—making the location strategically viable for the Government. This, however, has negative implications on how the planning, financing, and development will be carried out. Many of the negotiations were only done by the higher-ups, making the scheme relatively inaccessible for local actors to contribute (Guild, 2023; Jati & Alami, 2022). Several local leaders have also pointed out the severe consequences of moving forward with the current plan.

               Firstly, the overall concept-making of the city was carried out too hastily. National leaders and corporations are focusing too much on the bigger picture, leaving many details not discussed. Many foreign investors are even scared to invest as the plan for Indonesia’s capital is still vague and poorly constructed (Galuh & Chandran, 2022; Johansyah et al., 2019). This has led many to assume that the Government is just focusing on economic growth, bypassing thorough public and expert consultations, and pushing forward with only a ‘rough sketch.’ Cities constructed just to demonstrate technology or infrastructure have a dismal track record. They are frequently abandoned or underutilized because, even though the planning reflects lofty notions and the structures are sleek and futuristic, there is no compelling reason for people to live there. China’s vacant green towns, as well as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, are examples. Despite efficient design and contemporary structures, there is little to entice visitors and residents to reside in the city (Guild, 2023).

               Secondly, the reasoning behind the development project lacks depth and meaning. It was planned as a national strategic plan, even put into law, but had no significant reason other than to address the Jakarta problem and to create a more centrally located government (Johansyah et al., 2019). Local leaders are inclined to the idea of the Government only moving the problem from Jakarta to their land, risking their environment, local culture, and wisdom in the process. However, the reason for moving the capital city away from a disaster-prone location is favored chiefly by many parties, including several public opinions (Guild, 2023). Moving away from Jakarta is therefore strategic for this reasoning to build a more resilient capital city for Indonesia’s future. Nevertheless, the discourse regarding the urgency of the relocation plan is open for debate and further examination.

Oligarchs and Development

Oligarchs and their role in development can have complex and varied impacts depending on the context and specific actions of the individuals involved. Generally, oligarchs refer to a small group of individuals with significant economic and political power within a country or region. They often accumulate vast wealth through various means, including controlling industries, natural resources, and political connections. Sultana (2022) refers to this as “climate coloniality,” or racial domination and hierarchical power relations, established during active colonialism and still exist in the post-colonial era where the colonial matrix of power exists. Indonesia’s oligarchs are one of the few remanences of colonial rule, controlling almost the nation’s resources and economy.

               Several negative behaviors from oligarchs would probably impact the course of this development. First, by their nature, oligarchs tend to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few individuals. This concentration can exacerbate income inequality, hinder social mobility, and create a lopsided distribution of resources, impeding inclusive development. Second, oligarchs sometimes exploit their political connections to gain undue advantages and engage in corrupt practices. They may use their influence to obtain government contracts, monopolize markets, or evade taxes, undermining fair competition and hindering development. Oligarchs may exert significant influence over political processes, including policymaking and governance. This can lead to policies and regulations that favor their interests rather than the broader welfare of society, resulting in a distortion of development priorities. Lastly, oligarchs can often wield power without being subject to appropriate checks and balances. This lack of accountability can undermine institutional integrity, weaken the rule of law, and hinder effective governance, which is crucial for sustainable development (Patterson et al., 2018; Sultana, 2022; Wamsler & Brink, 2018).

               In the context of Indonesia’s new capital, oligarchs dominate the negotiation process with the Government. Many of the dozens of corporations in the Penajam Paser Utara region are more interested in negotiating with the central Government than with the local people living there, as many believe that this relocation plan would benefit them greatly. This is because the Government would also acknowledge the corporate oligarchs more quickly than the people as they have power over the land (Johansyah et al., 2019). Now, we get back to the question of justice. While the project enactment was pushed for a just transition towards a sustainable future city, the lack of transparency and public opinion depicted by the oligarchs and central authority relationship says otherwise. People’s views about the relocation project are marginalized, sidelined, and not considered. Overall, this plan has been another scheme to gain the maximum utility from capitalism, not for climate-resilience measurements.

The Loss and Damages (un)Accounted For

               The UNFCCC (2012) defines climate change losses and damages as ‘the existing and prospective manifestation of climate change effects that negatively affect human and environmental systems.’ This concept has driven many politicians and policymakers to scrutinize even more climate change frameworks as it becomes the ‘third pillar’ alongside the other two pillars of ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation.’ A complete normative theory of loss and damage must explain the objective of international loss and damage response and how that goal can be justified (Page & Heyward, 2016). Within the context of Indonesia’s New Capital City, loss and damage must be considered to prioritize ‘vulnerable’ groups and how the Government would give means to compensate for their loss from climate change-related catastrophes.

               The loss and damage measurements should then focus on two vulnerable groups: the people residing in Jakarta and the local people of the Penajam Paser Utara region. Jakarta is already on the verge of sinking and engulfed by rising sea levels. Public opinions have mainly stated that the relocation plan is just a simple way of the Government saying, “We are moving from the problem,” and not paying much attention to resolving the problem of Jakarta (Galuh & Chandran, 2022). This is apparent in how the Government is constantly making grand preparations for the construction of the new capital rather than on mitigation of future floods in Jakarta, for instance, by constructing a decent sea wall. Jakarta’s residents, in this case, are one of those vulnerable groups. If the New Capital comes into realization, the Government should not lessen its efforts to enhance mitigation, adaptation, and, more importantly, compensation for the people living in Jakarta.

               Another vulnerable group in this discussion is, of course, the local people of Penajam Paser Utara. Attempts to construct a sustainable and green city in the heart of one of the world’s last existing rainforests raise some concerns, especially among the village leaders in the areas. They fear that the construction process of the newly planned city would devastate the local biodiversity (Johansyah et al., 2019). Furthermore, by moving the capital city to their area, they will be forced to move out for the construction project and make room for new people coming there. While the Government has promised to be fair with the relocation and compensation for the local people, the people residing in the area have little trust in the Government as the vagueness of the plan continues to grow. The Government should also prioritize protecting the local community’s well-being and be responsible for any loss and damage created by the New Capital’s construction.


To conclude, the case of Indonesia’s New Capital, Nusantara, is still shrouded with tendencies of injustice. The vagueness in the conceptualization of the New Capital, tendencies of inequalities and biases from the government and oligarchs’ relationship, and possibilities of loss and damage unaccounted for are only some of the few problems in resolving climate issues in Indonesia. The correlation between urban development and climate change adaptation, as mentioned by Nursey-Bray and Palmer (2018), is sometimes a headache for governments as they need a compromise between national and local values. The government should then halt the construction plan for the New Capital and readdress these problems to prevent future injustice towards the people, be it people living in Jakarta, the Penajam Paser Utara region, or other places in Indonesia. In the end, the issue of urban development for any developing country will always be at the crossroads with economic, security, and social problems of the nation, and cannot be viewed in a secluded manner.

Muhammad Alwi Addzikri
Muhammad Alwi Addzikri
Undergraduate International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.