Late last year, the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, confirmed his commitment to the ‘ambassadorial’ role he adopted back in 2022 to personally promote the proposed new capital of Nusantara in Kalimantan at the behest of Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo.
On his way back from China in October, he signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Indonesian government to engage his not-for-profit Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) in the project as well.
The Institute has pledged to establish a ‘research & development centre’ in the capital.
Blair is already on the Steering Committee for the Nusantara project, alongside Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince ‘MBZ’, whom Blair has cited, together with China, as a key potential investor for the massive construction project that would transport millions of Indonesians into the sparsely populated rainforest on the island of Borneo.
This has all been presented with a positive spirit on the grounds that environmental concerns can be tackled through today’s technology.
Blair has been a keen advocate of the green potential of the project – described as a ‘roadmap for reforestation’ by its proponents. President Jokowi is said to be seeking a futuristic solution to the problems facing the present capital, Jakarta, which is sinking under the weight of exponential growth.
During several visits to the region Blair’s statements have reflected a collective excitement over what he views as a cutting edge project:
“Nusantara was built in a time of dramatic change, in terms of technology and the environment that has grown increasingly, getting attention to be protected. Therefore, Nusantara city is not only a showcase for Indonesia but also for the world. I want everyone from all over the world to come to Nusantara to celebrate, see what actual things can be done,” [Antara News Agency – Tony Blair speech, October 2022]
The ex-PM, who has involved himself and his Institute for Global Change in government projects across Africa and boasts links with Silicon Valley, has put forward cutting edge technology as the solution to many of the existential challenges facing the planet and the human race, including this one.
He has embraced the challenge of creating a genuine ‘eco-city’ on the greenfield (rainforest) site, with a remit for ‘Net Zero’ targets on energy, and has supported the President in pushing the start button right away, creating a legacy for when Jokowi leaves office this year.
However, environmentalists, civil society organisations and scientists are highly concerned given the massive risk, the apparent haste and the experimental nature of this attempt to demonstrate that one of the remaining three lungs of Planet Earth can host the influx of a modern city and vast human population without further damaging the global eco-system that is already facing a climate and extinction crisis.
After all, these crises are themselves a direct result of an over-hasty implementation of technology without considering consequences.
Given the precious bio-diversity, and the complexity and scarcity of the world’s remaining rainforest areas, should not more time be given to consideration of the risks involved in placing a city in the world’s most ancient jungle, and the threat of erosion towards the entire surrounding space?
Mr Blair has primarily advocated Chinese innovation and technology to back the project, which has clearly been embraced as a massive opportunity for the super-power’s Road and Belt expansion into this supremely strategic region.
China has sought for decades to establish influence on the island of Borneo through exactly this form of loans and construction projects, as witnessed in Sarawak with the massive SCORE dam building programme, started under Taib Mahmud and largely involving Chinese finance and construction.
As ‘ambassador’ for the project and a champion of global peace and progress, this might seem a win for Mr Blair who has shuttled between China, Africa, Asia and his latest ‘Future of Britain’ projects since stepping down from office.
In Beijing, on the way to Indonesia last October, he endorsed the call for a pragmatic closer relationship between the super-power and western nations during a meeting with the leading foreign policy official of the Chinese Communist Party, in which he stated that a future Labour government would strengthen dialogue as a necessary step towards global peace and development.
Yet, despite such optimism, Sarawak’s own experience demonstrates how China’s expansionist approach towards development has consistently prioritised construction targets over safety and the longer-term consequences to the environment.
In 2016 the China backed dam-building progamme was halted in Sarawak owing to popular protests after projects like Bakun and Muram threw up massive eco and safety concerns, whilst bringing little or no benefit to the displaced communities of the interior.
However, the lure of Nusantara has now sparked that programme back to life with the prospect for genuine customers arriving over the border to soak up Sarawak’s current over-provision of hydro-power.
The GPS government is now thrusting ahead with further plans to dam up rivers and channel electricity outside the state, showing how far the destructive ripples of such a project can reach.
Planners for Nusantara might class such hydropower as ‘clean energy’ to boost their concept of a Net Zero city. However, the scientific reality is that mega-dams are massively polluting in terms of climate change (especially in the tropics): they destroy river life, belch out methane and consume vast tracts of carbon absorbing jungle. They then invite further erosion thanks to the access they provide.
This has been Sarawak’s story and it threatens to become Nusantara’s even worse story. China’s technical solutions to these problems and the effects of human erosion are not sufficiently explained, and that country’s commitment to conserving the oldest and most bio-diverse rainforest on the planet has been less clearly demonstrated than its hunger to establish economic influence over the rich resources of the third largest island on the planet.
This is why the environmentalists and native communities are urging Mr Blair and the President of Indonesia to pause this project, despite their confidence and friendship with China and Gulf investors.
‘Cutting edge technology’ makes for a great soundbite solution to all things. However, like a landing on the moon, such a project and all the scenarios and consequences should be carefully considered before this race to build Indonesia’s innovative concept in one of the most precious remaining remnants of natural scientific value on planet earth.