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Reforestation of Indonesia’s new capital city stumped by haphazard planting

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo plants in the site of the new capital, Nusantara, in Penajam Paser Utara district, East Kalimantan, in December 2023. Image courtesy of the Presidential Secretariat office/Muchlis Jr.

  • Less than a tenth of the reforestation target for Indonesia’s new capital city, Nusantara, has been achieved to date, planners say.
  • The main obstacles that experts have identified include a preference for nonnative tree species, poor planting practices and monitoring, and a general misapplication of reforestation principles.
  • Officials have acknowledged that progress is off-target, but note that the government is joined by the private sector and NGOs in carrying out tree-planting efforts.
  • They also say a master plan is in the works to better guide these efforts, as Indonesia prepares to inaugurate its “green forest city” later this year.

BALIKPAPAN, East Kalimantan — Planners building Indonesia’s new capital city in eastern Borneo say they’re far from their target of reforesting the site that the country’s president has projected will be a “green forest city” that the government plans to inaugurate later this year.

Among the main obstacles: a tree-planting program that caters more to the convenience of bureaucrats than the local ecology; a preference for nonnative tree species unsuited to the region; and a general lack of planning and coordination that’s resulted in some reforested areas being razed again for construction.

The new capital, known as Nusantara, sits on former mining and logging concessions in the province of East Kalimantan, with much of the landscape today barren or degraded. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has said he envisions the new capital being surrounded by biodiverse tropical rainforest with a rich variety of tree species, rather than the monoculture plantations that blanket the region.

“The concept of Nusantara is a forest city, which means this area has to be green, the environment here has to be green, and lastly, the buildings here have to be green as well,” the president said during a visit to the project site on Dec. 20, 2023.

Since late 2022, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has reforested 1,441 hectares (3,560 acres) of the Nusantara site.

That’s less than a tenth of the government’s 82,891-hectare (204,828-acre) reforestation target — an area larger than Jakarta or New York City — according to the OIKN, the government agency overseeing the city’s development.

The OIKN wasn’t involved in the reforestation work done by the environment ministry, but participates in a project to build a miniature tropical rainforest on a 96-hectare (237-acre) plot of land some 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) away from the central government’s core area of the new capital.

The miniature rainforest project, kicked off in the end of 2023, will serve as a blueprint for the kind of reforestation envisioned by the president. The project involves not only the OIKN but also the Mulawarman University and three companies — Danone, PT Indo Tambangraya Megah (ITM) and PT Multi Harapan Utama (MHU).

“If we look at the progress from the size [of reforested areas], then it’s still far [from the target],” Myrna Asnawati Safitri, the deputy for environment and natural resources at the OIKN, told Mongabay. “But if we look at the actors [involved in the reforestation program], then there’s already progress because it means that the reforestation efforts are not exclusive to just the state. Even the private sector and NGOs are involved. That’s a good thing.”

Myrna added that this year, the environment ministry plans to reforest 500 hectares (1,235 acres) and mining companies will rehabilitate around 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) as part of their legal obligations to compensate for deforestation on their concessions.

A vehicle passes the industrial forest concession of PT Itci Hutani Manunggal (IHM) in Penajam Paser Utama district, East Kalimantan. Parts of PT IHM’s pulpwood concession overlap with the site of the new capital city. Image courtesy of Trend Asia/Melvinas Priananda.

A grid, not a forest

But the reforestation work being done is haphazard and rushed as the government chases its tree-planting goals without a master plan in place, according to fieldwork by experts from Mulawarman University tasked by the government to give input on the reforestation program. Among the challenges the experts identified are a lack of worker competency, lack of suitable seeds, and lack of funding.

During their on-the-ground monitoring, they found some reforestation plots had been planted with a single species of tree at a determined spacing, resembling the industrial plantations they were supposed to replace rather than natural forests, according to Syahrinudin, a soil sciences and forest nutrition researcher at Mulawarman University.

“They have a standard for planting distance, around 1,000 or 1,100 trees per hectare, resulting in 3 by 3 meters [10 by 10 feet] of planting distance for open area,” he told Mongabay.

This uniform grid makes it easier for officials to see and monitor the growth of the trees, Syahrinudin said. It also results in reforestation that doesn’t resemble the organic growth of natural forests.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo overlooks the construction of the new capital, Nusantara, in Penajam Paser Utara district, East Kalimantan, in February 2023. Image courtesy of the Cabinet Secretariat office.

Few native species being planted

Then there’s the matter of the trees being planted: Very few are native to this region, according to Tukirin Partomihardjo, the head of the Indonesian Rare Tree Forum (FPLI), who said he’s made three visits to the nursery providing the seedlings for the Nusantara reforestation. (Mongabay tried to visit the nursery, making repeated requests for a permit from both local and central governments, but it wasn’t granted.)

Tukirin said he saw mostly eucalyptus seedlings, which aren’t native to East Kalimantan, and a tree species called Palaquium rostratum, known in Indonesian as nyatoh, which is native to the Bangka-Belitung Islands off Sumatra.

If the government wants to transform this part of East Kalimantan back into rainforest, it must plant seeds that are native to the region, Tukirin said.

There are an estimated 1,433 tree species endemic to Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo. It’s especially important to prepare seeds of tree species that form lowland dipterocarp forest, the native ecosystem of East Kalimantan, Tukirin said. The natural lowland rainforest around the Nusantara site hosts at least 13 genera of dipterocarp trees, he added.

But there were few of these seeds being grown in the nursery when he visited in 2022, he said.

“I emphasize the importance of returning endemic tree species from nearby dipterocarp forests — not from Sumatra, but from East Kalimantan,” he told Mongabay.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pays a visit to the Mentawir nursery that will provide the seedlings for the Nusantara reforestation in Penajam Paser Utara district, East Kalimantan, in September 2023. Image courtesy of the Presidential Secretariat office/Muchlis Jr.

Trees for biodiversity

Endah Sulistyawati, the dean of the biotechnology school at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), who researches forest ecology, agreed that planting a large number of endemic species at the Nusantara site is important for restoring the area’s native biodiversity.

“I consider the development of the new capital as a very crucial [opportunity] to enrich the biodiversity in Indonesia,” she said in a webinar last year.

Mulawarman University vice president Sukartiningsih, who leads the team of experts commissioned by the government, said Borneo’s iconic wildlife also depend on dipterocarp forests for food and shelter. These include the critically endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), the Bornean subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), and the Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis).

“Tropical rainforests have unique fruits that provide food not only to humans, but also wildlife, like durian,” Sukartiningsih told Mongabay at her office in Samarinda, the East Kalimantan capital. “We have to return this. And there are also other trees that could be used as medicine, like what the Dayak Indigenous people often [rely on].”

Tukirin said it might be difficult finding native seeds, given that most nurseries in the region only produce seeds tailored for industrial plantations. An analysis of various tree-planting programs in Kalimantan shows that only 60 tree species are used in the programs, Endah said.

“I suspect that this is because replanting programs so far have only focused on certain tree species, perhaps because there’s a preference toward species that are needed by the public, those that have commercial and use value,” she said. “This is understandable.”

Pungky Widiaryanto, the director of forest utilization and water resource development at the OIKN, said the government agency is addressing this lack of endemic seeds at its nursery.

“The [nursery] supports endemic seeds from Kalimantan, as well as seeds of fruit trees,” he told Mongabay. “Some endemic plants have been planted, such as meranti [Shorea spp.], under the shade of eucalyptus trees.”

Pungky said that in 2022, the reforestation effort prioritized the planting of pioneer tree species, which are faster-growing varieties, often nonnative, that can quickly form a canopy beneath which slower-growing and longer-living native species can flourish. This is why few endemic tree species were planted in the initial stage of the reforestation program, he said.

“Some endemic tree species from Kalimantan need shade and nutrition provided by pioneer trees,” Pungky said.

Mature tropical dipterocarp rainforest in Sabah, Borneo. Image courtesy of T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

Changing the system

Another of the main problems with the reforestation program is that the techniques being used aren’t in keeping with President Joko Widodo’s stated vision for greening the mostly denuded landscape of the Nusantara site, Syahrinudin said.

Reforestation programs across Indonesia typically focus on planting individual trees to enrich the ecosystems of forests that have been degraded by logging but still retain some level of natural biodiversity.

However, the landscape in the new capital is nothing like the forests left behind by selective logging. Instead, the land here is dominated by monoculture industrial plantations of acacia or oil palm. And unlike secondary forests, the soil quality is mostly degraded by years of industrial agriculture.

As a result, forest restoration here can’t be accomplished simply by planting supporting tree species, experts say: the government should also plant pioneer tree species, whose leaves and limbs provide organic material to the soil, preparing it for the planting of longer-living trees.

Another feature of the enrichment planting currently being carried out is that workers usually just plant a small variety of economically valuable tree species, Syahrinudin said. Establishing the tropical rainforest envisioned by the president requires planting a much wider range of species.

“We had discussed [with the authorities] to change the system, but with all the [budget and time] constraints, it’s not possible yet,” he said.


Weeds and waterlogging

Another challenge for the reforestation program is the presence of an invasive weed species, originally from the tropical Americas, called Mikania micrantha, or bitter vine. It’s a fast-growing species that can quickly smother other plants, shrubs and trees.

When the team of experts visited some of the reforested sites, they saw some of the planted trees covered with M. micrantha, which forced them to grow sideways rather than up, and in some cases even killed them, Sukartiningsih said.

A lack of knowledge among reforestation workers also poses a technical challenge, the experts found. For instance, they encountered workers digging holes and planting seedlings in them, instead of planting them in small mounds to reduce the risk of them getting flooded.

The experts also found workers planting dry-soil species like agarwood (Aquilaria spp.), known locally as gaharu, in waterlogged soil, leading to the seedlings quickly dying.

In some cases, workers forgot to mark the seedlings they’d planted, and thus lost track of them over time as they were overrun by weeds, Sukartiningsih said.

“The workers weren’t familiar with the seedlings as they’re still tiny, only 60 centimeters [24 inches]. As a result, they accidentally stepped on them because they thought the seedlings were shrubs,” she said. “But the last time we checked, all seedlings had been marked with ribbons so that they can be identified from far away.”

Then there was the case of a plot of land being replanted with meranti trees, where the hardwoods had already grown to a height of 1.5 meters (5 feet), only to be cleared because a road was being built through the site.

“So there needs to be good coordination so that [the planting] doesn’t go to waste,” Sukartiningsih said.

The trees at the Nusantara site, both planted and established, are also affected by dust from the ongoing construction work, she added.

“There’s so much dust. This dust covers all surfaces of the plants,” she said. “Coupled with lack of rain [due to the dry season], the plants are suffering.”

All these instances show how important it is for the parties who carry out reforestation works in Nusantara to not only prepare quality seeds, but also to train workers so they understand how to plant and maintain the seedlings, Sukartiningsih said.

“The preparation of good seeds has to be complemented with actions in the field, such as how to take care of the seeds and how to plant them and maintain them,” she said. “So it’s a whole sequence that’s connected to each other.”

Seedlings planted in waterlogged soil in the Nusantara reforestation, leading to the seedlings quickly dying. Image courtesy of the Mulawarman University.

Lack of a master plan

All of the problems encountered point to the absence of a master plan guiding the OIKN in the reforestation process.

Myrna, the OIKN official, said the agency is currently drafting a master plan, which will define the locations to be reforested, the kinds of trees to be planted, and the protocol for maintaining them.

Some of the plots will be exclusively for reforestation, while others will have some multipurpose trees that provide economic benefits, such as timber and fruit. Some plots might have agroforestry elements incorporated, particularly in areas where existing communities already practice agriculture.

“The master plan is still being drafted because we need to check [the data] in more detail, but the general framework is already there,” Myrna told Mongabay this month.

The lack of master plan is compounded by the lack of budget allocated for government reforestation programs in general, Syahrinudin said.

At less than 20 million rupiah ($1,300) per hectare, or about $520 per acre, the budget allocated to reforest the new capital is far from enough to make sure the planting and maintenance are carried out properly, he said.

“[For comparison], the budget allocated to plant oil palms is up to 70 million rupiah [$4,500] per hectare” — about $1,810 per acre — “meanwhile we’re only allocated less than 20 million rupiah per hectare [for reforestation]. That’s far from what we hope for,” Syahrinudin said.

As a result, workers can’t afford to buy more mature seedlings, which cost up to five times the regular ones, he said. Late budget disbursements also delay planting efforts, resulting in missing prime planting season or seedlings not receiving proper care.

“Young trees are like newborn babies: they need to be properly taken care of. If we’re late [in maintaining them], their growth will become stagnant,” Syahrinudin said.

“We can’t demand too much [from the workers] because with the resources they have, they face difficulties [in the reforestation program],” he added.

The Nusantara “Point Zero” is an icon for Indonesia’s new capital city, which lies at the heart of an expiring logging concession in eastern Borneo. Image by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Long-term monitoring

Having a master plan and a long-term budgeting plan will allow the OIKN to better monitor the growth of the planted trees in the first few years after planting, which is crucial for the success of the reforestation program, Sukartiningsih said.

Under the current reforestation program, the government is allocating funds to monitor and maintain the work for just three years after the trees are planted. This isn’t long enough, Sukartiningsih said, especially for a program as ambitious as the one in Nusantara.

The government should allocate funding for the first five years at the minimum, to ensure the trees that are already planted don’t die before they can mature, she said. This is especially true for some endemic tree species like meranti and Bornean ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), known locally as ulin.

These tropical hardwoods grow slowly, and need protection from weeds during the first two years after planting.

“For dipterocarp tree species, it’s not enough [to monitor their growth for the first few years only]. That’s why we recommend five years minimum,” Sukartiningsih said. “If these trees have grown to at least 2 meters [6 ft] tall, then they can compete with the growth of weeds, and they can survive [on their own].”

With a master plan in hand and the involvement of all stakeholders, including experts and companies that are legally obliged to rehabilitate their concessions, Syahrinudin said he’s optimistic the notion of restoring the rainforest in this part of East Kalimantan can come true.

“Actually building a forest isn’t that complex. We only have to make sure that the seedlings are of high quality, the size of the mound is suitable to plant the seeds in, and there’s enough soil conditioner,” he said. “We have to maintain [the seedlings] as well. If we do all that, we will succeed.”

David Woodbury, a forest researcher from Yale University’s environment school, who focuses on the ecology of forest regeneration, said there are some reasons to be optimistic. For one, there’s good evidence that industrial plantations can be restored back to forest, he told Mongabay.

“They are generally more amenable to restoration than mine sites due to less intense soil damage at the sites,” said Woodbury, whose 2020 study found that rehabilitation of former coal mining sites isn’t as effective as might be expected.

However, the success of the restoration program will depend on what the specific goal of the rehabilitation is, he said.

“[Establishing] tree-lined streets will be relatively easy; restoring [native] forests will take more time,” he said. “While restoration of industrial plantations is more likely than at mine sites or formerly forested areas covered in grasses or invasive species, it will still require significant management interventions such as planting of native species and strategically cutting plantation trees to restore these ecosystems.”

That’s exactly why the program shouldn’t rely on the usual rehabilitation techniques and short-term budgeting without any master plan, Syahrinudin said.

“Establishing a tropical rainforest doesn’t come easy and cheap. That means we can’t build a rainforest like the usual rehabilitation program,” he said. “Because the initial cost is already high, and if we don’t maintain [the seedlings] intensively, then we will suffer a great loss. All these need proper planning.”


CORRECTION (16/02/2024): A previous version of this article misstated a statement by Sukartiningsih from the Mulawarman University. In the previous version of the article, Sukartiningsih was quoted as saying that it’s important for the OIKN to also train workers so they understand how to plant and maintain the seedlings. Sukartiningsih was actually referring to all parties who carry out reforestation works in the new capital, not just the OIKN.

The new version of the article also adds a number of points to clarify that the reforestation works in 2022 assessed by the team of experts from the Mulawarman University were carried out by the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry, not by the OIKN.

Lastly, the size of reforested area has been revised from 2,141 hectares to 1,441 hectares.


Banner image: Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo plants in the site of the new capital, Nusantara, in Penajam Paser Utara district, East Kalimantan, in December 2023. Image courtesy of the Presidential Secretariat office/Muchlis Jr.


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