On 26 August 2019, during one of the first major announcements of his second term as president, Joko Widodo confirmed rumours that Indonesia would move its capital from its sprawling current location along the northern edge of the world’s most populated island, Pulau Java, to the province of East Kalimantan on the neighbouring island of Borneo. According to various studies and assessments, the so-called Capital District of Indonesia, known as ‘DKI Jakarta’, required relocation to address two major issues: chronic seasonal flooding during the Southeast Asian monsoon and excessive land subsidence due to rampant but unregulated groundwater extraction. As one island subsides, another is being mapped as a refuge for carefully selected survivors. In what follows, we explore how this attempt to govern from outside the crisis exemplifies current capitalist reactions to climate change.
Although it is clear that the dynamics of atmosphere, land, and water do not obey geopolitical borders, like politicians, designers have yet to fully develop the capacity to attentively engage with the multiple scales of spatiality and temporality that anthropogenic climate change requires. More frequently, design professionals are complicit in and profit from their willingness to perpetuate illusions of escape and separation. As part of our ongoing documentation of both the psychosocial and geophysical aspects of capital relocation in Indonesia, we offer this brief case study of climate change escapism in order to examine accumulation in the making.
By considering the concepts of enthusiasm and abandonment as they play out in the political economic arguments for a new capital and limitless capital accumulation, we try to elucidate the entangled registers of imagination and materiality in the administration of volatile environmental and political bodies. Engulfed as we now are among the vicissitudes of disaster capitalism, how can we design for emergent political geographies otherwise?1
When Jakarta’s reputation as the ‘fastest sinking city in the world’ began going viral, narratives of ecological crisis were quickly embraced as a means to transform climate risks into investment opportunities. In response to increasingly frequent inundations of the capital city, the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development Plan (NCICD) proposed to address the challenges of subsidence by reinforcing the existing coastal seawall and constructing a new 40 kilometre, 25 metre high, outer seawall for additional protection against oceanic and tidal forces and sea level rise. At an estimated cost of $40 billion USD, the expense of the seawall would be partially recovered through real estate investments on 17 reclaimed islands constructed to resemble the figure of the country’s national symbol—a mythical eagle—the ‘Great Garuda’.
The promotion of the Great Garuda evinced a motley enthusiasm: Dutch engineering expertise, ideologies of development and investment, nationalist imaginaries, and, of course, the requisite images of a luxury water world meant to naturalise speculative urbanisms and the cruel spectacle of technological infrastructure as a self-evident solution to increasingly volatile climatic fluctuations.2 The rhetoric of climate adaptation, urgency, and risk is aggressively employed to justify the implementation of previously blocked development plans, now made permissible with the language of ‘crisis’. The language of risk becomes a ruse, used by contractors, consultants, and politicians to exonerate new infrastructure for the accumulation of capital at any cost.
Folded into the narrative of this spectacle that will ‘save the city’ are well-crafted ambiguities regarding who or what is being saved, at what cost, and to whom. Which spaces are cleared for the purpose of accumulation? Those rendered eligible and legible in a homogenised form of urban success that hinges on reductionist economic valuation seem pleased by the investment opportunities. Yet, as the Great Garuda becomes mired in lawsuits and controversies related to corruption, money laundering, and forged environmental assessments, the project has repeatedly stalled, thereby initiating its own microclimate of performative uncertainty. Somehow, the images prevail: renderings of gleaming white buildings—generic in their form but clearly differentiated from the diverse textures and qualities of life that make up the city as it is—reorder the coast with a formidable array of empty investment shells.
Rendering of the ‘Great Garuda’ seawall from Tidak ada Kapital. All film stills and images are courtesy of the authors / Tidak ada Kapital © 2020.
On December 17, 2019, a 170 metre section of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development seawall collapsed into the Java Sea. As only the very first section of a $40 billion USD project supposedly designed to protect the city from oceanic forces for (at least) the next 80 years, the engineering project succumbed to massive failure only several years after commencing construction. Notably, the first section that collapsed was being built from land along the coast; however, much of the 40 kilometre wall is planned for construction directly in the ocean.
The spectacular failure so early on in its execution led some to question the design of the project as a whole. Heightened concerns over the accuracy of engineering calculations and questionable construction protocols were silenced by a ministerial statement assuring residents that future construction would be safe and secure. So the project continues—or, more accurately, begins again unperturbed by the forces of the sea, the differential sinking of the soil, and the chorus of activists and concerned residents who oppose the development.
As we were filming along the coast in February 2020, a new wall was already under construction behind the collapsed section. Groups of young workers operated their drilling machines with a calm serenity next to the massive slab of concrete laying along the shore like some colossal drowned corpse. If it can indeed be built, the Great Garuda will be realised one foundation piling after another, notwithstanding the possibility of additional calamitous engineering failures (and access to cheap hydrocarbon energy permitting). The occurrence literally lays bare a mode of accumulation taken to the point of collapse; failure is used to justify the very same operations that induced it.
The repetition-without-difference of failure and abandonment are not unique to the seawall; indeed, the looping choreography of construction and collapse is a core requirement for the flow of capital. As one wall collapses, the injection of additional procurement processes, bids, contracts, and materials are easily justified; every time the cycle repeats, so do the potential opportunities for officials and businessmen to skim portions of each contract in bribes and other laundering schemes. Because abandonment and failure are key parts of this lucrative construction cycle, no additional protocols are set in place to adjudicate claims or ensure project management—none are needed, because the aim of these projects is the ceaseless circulation of material (especially sand, concrete, steel and glass) and money. As real as any of these construction sites may appear, and as massive and overwhelming as they are in relation to any individual human body, it is imperative to understand that the majority of this construction is merely a secondary process that enables the accumulation of capital to take place elsewhere. This fact is instructive: abandonment and failure are integral parts of the process of accumulation, and not, as is so often assumed, contrary to or at odds with the objective of capitalism: accumulating capital.
Despite the collapse of the first section of the seawall, and the recently released Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere, authored by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, development along the coast continues unabated.3 The group of reclaimed islets that will comprise the commercial section behind the seawall also remain under construction; in May 2020, the Indonesian president refused to halt the process even though environmental activists have repeatedly pointed out the danger they pose to the sensitive ecosystem of Jakarta Bay.4 The historian Abidin Kusno has referred to the processes of coastal development as ‘green governmentality’, noting how environmental discourses are appropriated as a way of reframing wealth inequality and the uneven distribution of environmental risks and benefits.5
Jakarta’s reinforced seawall after collapsing along Jalan Tuna in North Jakarta (January 2020).
The 142 year colonisation of Indonesia by the Dutch Empire was preceded by 200 years of asymmetrical mercantilist relations with the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie; hereafter VOC). The VOC was the world’s first multinational corporation, one of the most profitable, and the largest corporate entity ever to exist.6 The first permanent colonial ‘trading post’ was established in Banten in 1603; by 1619, under the direction of the new Governor-General of the VOC, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Dutch attacked Indonesia with 19 ships and seized the site which would become Batavia (and, eventually, Jakarta). Three and a half centuries later, the Dutch controlled territory within the Malay Archipelago 50 times the size of the Netherlands. According to a 1937 film promoting the colonial possessions of so-called Asiatic Holland, ‘The Javanese by nature are a quiet and peaceful people more or less subdued by the vertical rays of an equatorial sun, as well as the benevolence of mother nature, who has favoured them with a constant bounty of tropical fruit’.7 Left out of the film is the structural violence against peoples and ecologies that accompanied the Dutch colonial project in Nusantara, as well as all the other means by which Indonesians and their lands were ‘more or less subdued’ to colonial rule and its attendant plunder.8
Urban water infrastructure projects have been central to state building programs and developmentalist agendas since the 17th century, when the Dutch embarked on a mission to convert coastal swampland into a commodious port city for efficient export to Europe. To ensure the colonial administration of trade, Batavia was established as the eastern administrative headquarters of the VOC. The city was planned with stringent impositions of order and rank, thereby establishing a hierarchy that would serve colonial needs and enrol the city’s inhabitants into structures of production and segregation. Among the many inhabitants to be managed were the numerous rivers that traversed the city; seasonal variations—namely, the Southeast Asian monsoon—would not be permitted to disrupt the regularity and expansion of economic activities.
Water infrastructures were also critical for maintaining relationships of subjection; colonial logics of security and hygiene demanded that water be carefully controlled. Heralding the separationist ideology that water can be better contained and managed through concretised channels, large scale engineering projects displaced the fluidity of the rivers and their socioecological entanglements. Today, a city of 31 million residents have inherited these assertive infrastructures and the ideologies of control and segregation that they render into concrete. While many Dutch engineers will discuss the importance of considering ‘path dependencies’ in the planning phases of new infrastructure for Indonesia, few, if any, are willing to re-examine the difficulties of ‘path inheritance’ that accompanies their previous hubristic modifications of natural systems. All the while, the dynamism of the river remains incompatible with fictions of material control, and the monsoon continues to be a seasonal reminder that water resists any fixity.
Workers on a bamboo platform take sea floor measurements of Jakarta Bay in front of the massive Regata Development Complex in North Jakarta.
Yet, as colonial infrastructures rot and burst under the pressure of intensifying weather patterns and rapid urbanization, the response to flooding perpetuates a colonial legacy. While continuing to promote their hydraulic engineering ‘expertise’ throughout the region, postcolonial relations help mobilise contracts with Dutch consultants and engineering firms. However, dressing geopolitical traditions of homogenisation and subjection in the robes of neoliberal development discourse does not negate their coloniality.
Jalan Diponegoro (Diponegoro Street) runs through the city centre of Jakarta, crossing over the Ciliwung River as it meets the main street of Jakarta’s commercial centre. The boulevard’s namesake, Prince Diponegoro, is renowned in Indonesia for leading the most formidable rebellion against Dutch colonial rule. His betrayal, under the pretence of a ceasefire, is understood as a defining, treacherous episode in the history of European colonialism in the archipelago.9
Left to right: the Dutch culture minister, Indonesia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, and director of Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology pose with Prince Diponegoro’s kris in The Hague following its repatriation in March 2020.
In March 2020, as Dutch construction and engineering firms were aggressively trying to secure construction contracts for the new capital of Indonesia, Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Dutch minister of culture, accompanied Stijn Schoonderwoerd, the director of Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology, to The Hague in order to return Diponegoro’s kris (a traditional dagger) to Indonesia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja [Fig. 4]. As an act of postcolonial repatriation became the veritable bribery mechanism for neocolonial extraction and construction contracts, it is not hard to imagine what the guerilla-prince would have done with the blade in such a setting.
On the Eastern edge of the island of Borneo—the third largest island in the world—the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda punctuate the serpentine coastline. The land between these two existing settlements is currently being prepared to host the new capital of Indonesia; the destruction of the territory involved in this preparation creates a literal tabula rasa for a new urban experiment in capital accumulation. How do such acts of aggression convert the concerns over climate change and sea level rise into new forms of cruel enthusiasm for relocation? In the 75 years since Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule, why does such a colonial mentality persist in relation to natural systems and ecological processes? We observed these processes through the mediated form of an image relayed from the drone to its remote control; even our expectation of some ecological disturbance on the site of the new capital did not prepare us to witness such a total form of erasure.
Land is cleared in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to prepare the site for the arrival of the new capital.
As our drone produced images of the new bridge that will complete the Trans-Kalimantan Expressway and thereby enable a more thorough and efficient process of extraction across the island, we were reminded of how Walter Rodney characterises the building of roads and railways in his inimitable study, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. According to Rodney, these infrastructures:
had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import-export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier … All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies, and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental.10
What Rodney describes with respect to African colonialism has countless parallels in the Asian context. The Trans-Kalimantan Expressway is just the latest continuity of the logic of coloniality in this moment of unbridled capitalist extractivism and development.
Following an open competition to design the new capital, ’Nagara Rimba Nusa’ (Forest Archipelago City) was announced as the winning design. Saturated with national symbols, the renderings depict an urban centre surrounded by wetlands, featuring electric vehicles, drone taxis, and a monumental artificial lake—a God’s eye view of tropical urban paradise, at least until one looks more closely.
The Trans-Kalimantan Expressway Bridge under construction south of Balikpapan, Borneo.
As narratives of a sinking, congested, and polluted Jakarta dominate international media, the new capital city promises to become ‘a new symbol of national identity’ heralding qualities of smartness, beauty and sustainability’. Aggressively marketed as a ‘smart forest city’, the carefully selected rhetoric of the new capital amplifies techno-solutionist fantasies while avoiding environmental concerns. Illustrated with glimmering waterways weaving through the city centre, the plans fail to clarify how the new capital will address the spatio-political entanglements that led to challenges present in Jakarta. Difference is repetitive. The narrative incites the myth of infinite economic and technical growth, even while the very same problematic ecological consequences triggered by those interests are also employed to justify the ambitious move.
Rendering of the new capital city from the winning proposal, ‘Nagara Rimba Nusa’, by the firm Urban+.
Although the descriptive nationalist rhetoric appealing to the nation’s past and future generations serve to garner enthusiasm at a national scale, the plans themselves suggest that a much smaller number of actors are eligible to participate in the nation’s new future. Although the 632,580 acre site is four times the size of Jakarta, the new capital will be designed to house 900,000 to 1.5 million people—less than 3 percent of Jakarta’s current population. The relocation of the capital is a salient reminder that ‘saving humanity’ tends to follow supremacist cartographies of selective zones that determine those who are rendered legible and sensible, and those who are not.
In the comparisons to a destitute Jakarta, and in the spatial, programmatic, and demographic designations of the new urban centre, a mentality of disposability (characteristic of the Anthropocene), continues to prevail. Renderings featuring stylised flyovers, seductive lighting, and twinkling sterilised structures conveniently distract from the social implications, political dynamics, and ecological entanglements of spatial production. The intent of these fantastical representations has never been to explicate how the new capital will address the challenges present in Jakarta; instead, they are designed to titillate the public imagination about the nation state, and thus to drive further cycles of speculation and development, imminently coupled with displacement and extraction.
While drastically dislodged from textural realities, fantasised renderings become the basis of contract negotiations, land use designations, and land ownership rights. Shortly after the plans were revealed, real-estate developers, speculators, and Java’s urban elites quickly rushed to purchase parcels near the capital, driving up land prices. Still, there remains uncertainty about the function of these narratives beyond accumulation elsewhere.
We want to emphasise, however, that among various rhythms of speculation, excitement, and abandonment, the demobilising stasis of apathy, often grounded in historical memory, is a stultifying counterpoint: disbelief that plans will materialise once credit is swapped, denial that generational land rights will be snatched again with no remittance, or the refusal to be evicted or to be left behind. Tucked just under the veneer of sunset fantasies and colourful promenades are systems that enable and support the extractive processes and power arrangements that claim and make territory.
To convert the land into a space of and for accumulation, the Indonesian government—and its steering committee, which includes the former British prime minister Tony Blair as its asset manager—is now attempting to raise $33 billion USD in investment capital. In reality, the new capital will rely on both foreign investment and major international loans. Rosa Luxemburg already diagnosed the latter as a capitalist malady in The Accumulation of Capital, writing:
[Financial loans] are yet the surest ties by which the old capitalist states maintain their influence, exercise financial control and exert pressure on the customs, foreign and commercial policy of the young capitalist states. Pre-eminently channels for the investment in new spheres of capital accumulated in the old countries, such loans widen the scope for the acumulation of capital.11
Who reaps the benefits of investment? And, who is left to repay these loans? How is the capitalist system designed to ensure those nations with wealth accumulate more and more capital, while the countries who survived centuries of colonial plunder are set up to remain trapped in cycles of debt repayment, structural adjustment, and aid handouts?
The location for the new capital, Borneo.
As we were filming from a boat along the Ciliwung River, residents repeatedly explained to us how the severity of the 2020 floods was a result of precipitation intensity. Indeed, January 2020 saw the highest daily volume of rainfall since records began. The increase in precipitation intensity as a result of climate change is overwhelming both natural and artificial infrastructures across Southeast Asia. Critically, it is not just how much rain is falling, but how quickly it falls. Such intensity appears to mock the government’s extensive ‘normalisation’ plan that concretised the river’s edge for over 40 kilometres.12 The sense that the government had already abandoned its most vulnerable residents was clear; moving the capital to Borneo while leaving behind the millions of Jakartans to fend for themselves against worsening storms and increasingly precarious and underfunded infrastructures only added an escapist insult to the socio-environmental injuries already taking their toll on the city.
A resident of Central Jakarta describes the intensity of flooding along the Ciliwung River in January 2020.
It is important to ask who benefits from such egregious forms of abandonment and accumulation. In his magisterial study On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe asks,
Who is to be protected, by whom, against what and whom, and at what price? Who is the equal of whom? To what has one a right by virtue of belonging to an ethnic group, a region, or a religion? Who has a right to take power and govern, in what circumstances, how, for how long, and on what conditions? Who has the right to the product of whose work, and for what compensation? When may one cease to obey authority, without punishment? Who must pay taxes and where do these revenues go? Who may contract debts, and in the name of whom, and for what may they be expended? To whom do a country’s riches belong? In short, who has the right to live and exist, and who has not, and why?13
These questions echo in our thoughts as we try to document the tensions that characterise contemporary disaster capitalism in Indonesia.
In Borneo, we met with Jubaen, a member of the Indigenous Paser Balik tribe and the chief of Pemaluan, a village inside the planning zone for the new capital; he walked us through a rubber tree stand near the village as he explained that they have not been consulted, warned, or addressed as people on the land, despite the evident plan to remove them and take their land. After generations of families living together and working in and with the forest, the threat of imminent eviction is made more acute because few of the families have any official records or permits. From the point of view of a state searching for a new capital, they had no right to be there and need not be consulted; from the perspective of the residents who recalled ancestors on the land, nothing could be more obvious than the fact that this was their home—who else could have cultivated and cared for the forest?
The chief explains how small-scale agro-forestry allows the Pemaluan community to harvest rubber without causing environmental destruction.
The uncertainty of what it will mean when the master plan for the new capital finally lands on the ground, the sea, and the residents persists. Whether the new capital will be fully realised, or not, remains unknown. At this moment—as we continue documenting these processes while the global COVID-19 pandemic reveals Potemkin infrastructures collapsing around the globe—what is so critical to stress is that the transformation of landscape and the appearance of architecture can, and in this instance, must be understood as secondary processes that enable the circulation and accumulation of capital.14
The cruel enthusiasm that accompanies the ‘normalisation’ of Jakarta’s rivers, the concretisation of its coast, and the relocation of its capital is the affective dimension of more wealth being transferred to the wealthy; architecture and landscape practitioners are key players in the public sale of such schemes, but the completion and maintenance of their projects are of minor importance compared to the economic momentum they initially facilitate. It is imperative that designers understand the imperial nature of development schemes in the Global South.15
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, innumerable questions remain: can the rendering of a new capital generate enough capital and investment to make the actual production of a new settlement unnecessary? Will the residents be left to enjoy their distance from the curse of the capital, or be forced into a new pattern of urbanism that treats them as provincial, and thus disposable, subjects? If accumulation elsewhere relies on the image of a new capital, what do such images mean for residents, lives, and livelihoods in the archipelago?
All images courtesy of the authors.
- N Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Knopf, Toronto, 2007.↩
- On the cruelty of enthusiasm, see A De Lisio, ‘Event Urbanism and the Politics of Enthusiasm’, Scapegoat: Architecture, Landscape, Political Economy, vol. 5, 2013, p. 170-179 http://www.scapegoatjournal.org/docs/05/SG_Excess_170-179_P_DELISIO.pdf.↩
- HO Pörtner et al., ‘IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’, IPCC [website], 2019, https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/.↩
- AMI Aqil, ‘Jokowi’s approval of Jakarta islet development stokes riticism’, Jakarta Post [website],18 May 2020, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/05/18/jokowis-approval-of-jakarta-islet-development-stokes-criticism.html.↩
- A Kusno, ‘The Green Governmentality in an Indonesian Metropolis’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol. 3, 2011, p. 314-331.↩
- B Taylor, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Largest Corporation Ever in History’,Business Insider [website], 6 November 2013, https://www.businessinsider.com/rise-and-fall-of-united-east-india-2013-11?r=DE&IR=T.↩
- Glimpses of Java and Ceylon: A FitzPatrick Travel Talk, JA. FitzPatrick, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 1937.↩
- JG Taylor, The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia, University of Wisconsin Press, London, 1983.↩
- AS Springer and E Turpin, ‘The Science of Letters’, in AS Spriner and E Turpin (eds.) Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, https://www.hkw.de/media/texte/pdf/publikationen_2/publikationen_3/intercalations3_reverse_hallucinations_in_the_archipelago.pdf.↩
- Quoted in L Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, Verso, London and New York, 2020, p. 121.↩
- R Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 401.↩
- AS Springer and E Turpin, ‘Anxious Instantiations’, transmediale journal [website], 8 August 2016, https://transmediale.de/content/anxious-instantiations.↩
- A Mbembe, On the Postcolony, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2001, p. 67.↩
- The term is borrowed from Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco, “Potemkin Infrastructure,” in the Avery Review 40 (May 2019); accessed at:https://averyreview.com/issues/40/potemkin-infrastructure. While she develops this term with respect to her research in Mexico, we believe it is also an apt description of various Southeast Asian development schemes.↩
- V Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso, London and New York, 2014.↩