Transport infrastructure is a key part of Kalimantan’s development plans, but conservationists fear a planned bridge in Balikpapan will have devastating environmental impacts.
- Work is currently underway on a bridge and access road that will connect the fast-growing city of Balikpapan with its rural outskirts.
- The project is part of a broader government program to transform Indonesian Borneo into an economic powerhouse.
- Conservationists have opposed the project since it was launched in 2008, fearing it will disrupt marine life, cut a crucial wildlife corridor and spark land speculation and encroachment along a protected forest.
BALIKPAPAN, Indonesia — Truck driver Bayu Santoso is one of thousands of people expected to take advantage of a planned bridge connecting the fast-growing city of Balikpapan to its rural outskirts.
Transporting goods from Sepaku — a remote area in East Kalimantan Province’s North Penajam Paser district — to Balikpapan, Santoso currently relies on a ferry service that takes around 90 minutes to cross Balikpapan Bay. The 800,000 rupiah (about $60) return ticket means he can only afford one trip per day.
“The ferry ticket is so expensive that it’s such a burden for us,” he told Mongabay. After gas and other expenses, he usually brings home around 100,000 rupiah per day.
Truck driver Bayu Santoso shows a return ticket for the ‘expensive’ ferry service in front of his vehicle. Local officials say the lack of a bridge crossing Balikpapan Bay is holding back regional development. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
Such connectivity problems are common in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. While the island is world famous for its lush and biodiverse rainforests, the government hopes to transform the area into an economic powerhouse. The “Kalimantan Economic Corridor,” focused on developing the island’s extractive industries, is one of six priority areas in the central government’s 2011-2025 development master plan.
Upgrading the island’s transport infrastructure is a key part of that strategy, and the planned bridge — known as Pulau Balang for the isle that anchors its center — fits right in.
However, the project has drawn protests from conservationists and some locals due to its expected environmental impact. Since the project kicked off in 2008, conservationists have pointed to an alternative route they believe would solve connectivity problems while reducing environmental impacts — but work is already underway, based on the original plans.
Ongoing construction of the bridge and its access road has already disrupted marine life in part of the bay and cleared strip of forest on the Balikpapan side that served as a vital connection between mangrove and forest habitats. Still, the local government has vowed work will continue, while promising that environmental damages will be kept to a minimum. The project, they say, could be an exemplar of green infrastructure in Indonesia.
The Pulau Balang bridge and its access road (inset area) pass through or near some of the few remaining tracts of primary forest near Balikpapan city. Magenta shading shows tree cover loss, although in some cases that indicates logging in plantations rather than in primary forests. Source: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, accessed through Global Forest Watch.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows the progression of bridge- and road work around Balang Island. In the more recent images, the first span of the bridge can be seen crossing from North Penajam Pasar in the west to Balang Island, while forest cleared for the bridge and access road is visible on the eastern side of the bay.
‘It’s killing us’
The proposed bridge consists of two spans, connected by Balang Island, which sits near the northern tip of Balikpapan Bay. The shorter traverse, which stretches 470 meters (1,542 feet) to link North Penajam Paser and the isle, was completed in 2013 and cost the provincial budget 425 billion rupiah.
Lack of funding, however, put the project on hold for two years. In 2015, the central government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took over the completion of the bridge as part of his ambitious plan to develop infrastructure outside of the crowded Java Island.
State-owned contractors PT Hutama Karya and PT Adhi Karya, and local builder PT Bangun Cipta Kontraktor were appointed to develop the final span (804 meters) to Balikpapan and its supporting infrastructure.
While the benefits of the bridge are still on paper, its development has already caused significant environmental damages to the surrounding land and marine ecosystems.
“Balikpapan is one of the most biodiverse cities in Asia. It hosts the last remaining coastal primary rainforest in the region still connected with adjacent marine ecosystems such as special mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs,” said Stanislav Lhota, a primatologist at the Czech University of Life Sciences, who has done years of research on the rainforest in East Kalimantan.
Tall, dense mangrove trees on the shore of Balang Island. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
A variety of mangrove trees standing at over 20 meters tall stretches along the northern coasts of the Balikpapan Bay and around Balang island — a view that gives a stark contrast to most of the southern edge of the bay, which is crowded by settlements and industrial complexes.
The playful calls of the Endangered proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) can be heard instead of the ear-assaulting racket of machines and engines. Some 1,400 individuals of the species are estimated to flock the mangroves of the Balikpapan Bay.
But the development of the bridge has already seen swaths of the mangrove ecosystem replaced by concrete pillars and a 50-meter wide road. This, scientists fear, will create dangers and difficulties for monkeys as they move around looking for food.
The coral-rich waters around Balang Island are the core habitat of the Vulnerable Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), according to the marine conservation group Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia (RASI) Foundation.
The loss of mangroves and coral reefs due to the bridge development have also jeopardized the local small-scale fishing community, who say “economical fish” are no longer found swarming the bay or the rivers.
“The bridge development was another blow to us traditional fishermen on the coast of Balikpapan Bay who, for the last several years, have been affected by the development of industrial zones,” 49-year-old Darman, who like many Indonesians have only one name, told Mongabay earlier this month.
The ongoing development of the 5,130-hectare Kariangau Industrial Zone (KIK) has since 2007 been blamed by conservation groups for degrading the quality of Balikpapan Bay and threatening the Sungai Wain Protection Forest, home to scores of the Vulnerable sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), which is the mascot of Balikpapan.
A sun bear, the icon of Balikpapan. Scores make their home in the Sungai Wain Protection Forest, which lies just west of the access road for the bridge. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Darman, who lives in the fishing village Gersik in North Penajam Paser, said his parents and grandparents, who were all full-time fishermen with wooden boats, could afford the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, known as hajj. He, meanwhile, only catches enough fish to meet his family’s basic needs.
“The local government keeps saying that this infrastructure will improve the economy of people living on the coast, but what I’ve experienced so far is the complete opposite — it’s killing us,” he said.
The privately-owned factories mushrooming on the coast create some job opportunities, Darman said, but not enough to take on all of the fishermen who will need to find new livelihoods if fish stocks continue to decline. Companies also often end up hiring outsiders who have better education and the required skills, he added.
“They promised us new jobs, but what we’ve all been doing all of our lives is fishing, and now our only source of life is being destroyed,” he said.
Even truck driver Santoso said he couldn’t be completely positive about the upcoming bridge until he experiences it himself.
“Maybe I won’t be spending as much as by going with ferry. However, I personally don’t see this project as highly beneficial for independent truck drivers as much as it will be for the companies. It’s just a way to expand the city,” said Santoso, noting that the route to the bridge, which sweeps in an arc north of the city would be a challenge in itself.
Encroachment and speculation
Even more than the bridge itself, conservationists worry about the development of its access road, which has already resulted in the bulldozing of a four-kilometer long, 100-meter wide strip of forest between a mangrove ecosystem and the Sungai Wain Protection Forest.
Local conservationists have lamented the zonation. “The area is crucial because it’s a corridor connecting the wildlife in the land forest of the Sungai Wain Protection Forest and the coastal forest,” said Hamsuri of the local green group Balikpapan Bay Concerned Forum (FPTB).
The planned access road crosses over four rivers — Puda, Brenga, Tempadung and Tengah — where a garden of seagrass grows on which the Vulnerable dugong (Dugong dugon) feeds. During a visit by Mongabay to the Tengah River, another iconic animal, a saltwater crocodile (Crocodilus porosus) appeared crawling out from the water.
The rivers were visibly contaminated by debris from the work on the access road, while some of the mangrove trees appeared dead from losing water.
The Tengah River, where a garden of seagrass grows. Its water has turned brownish as it is contaminated by debris from the development of the access road. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
Traces of burned vegetation were still visible from a May forest fire that consumed a strip of forest around 2.7 kilometers long, just 140 meters from the protection forest. The burning reportedly was done by locals who wanted to open land for a plantation.
Lhota estimates that, when factoring in indirect impacts like encroachment, the construction of secondary roads, burning, logging and hunting, the development of the access road will cause 5,000 hectares (19.3 square miles) of forest will be lost.
“All in all, the negative impacts from this bridge development will truly be an ecological disaster,” said the primatologist, who launched an online petition calling on President Jokowi to stop the project.
Work on the access road has already attracted some locals to start claiming land ownership in and around the cleared area, presumably in hopes that the arrival of the road will increase the value of property on its fringes. In 2012, Lhota estimated that land prices might shoot up tenfold when development plans for the area are completed.
One of the spots alongside the access road where local interests have staked claims. A sign says the area is owned by Mr. B. Musthofa of PT Agro Cakrawala Perkasa. A banner reads that the area, surrounded by wired fence, is under the supervision of the Dayak Customary Defense Command.
A number of local interests have put up wire fences and signs saying they are awaiting land certification from the city government. These include Kalimantan’s Dayak Customary Defense Commando, a uniformed paramilitary group.
Suryanto, head of the Balikpapan government’s environmental department, admitted that land speculation is taking place in the area around the access road. He said the claims sometimes lacked merit or overlapped with others.
“We are aware of speculators trying to make large profits from these claims, and we know who they are, but they’re going to have to prove it at court and we’ll just have to wait for the verdict. This is particularly difficult for us to deal with,” Suryanto told Mongabay.
A green project?
The local governments concede the project will have negative environmental impacts, but insist they have also implemented a mitigation program to minimize damages to the surrounding ecosystems.
Lhota, however, lambasted this policy as “greenwashing” that would ultimately backfire on the environment. “The extent of mangrove forest will still be reduced with that policy, because replanting mangrove will either be somewhere mangrove trees naturally grow, or on an area where mangroves can’t live,” he said.
In 2016, the city administration also agreed to involve an observer who will monitor the activities of marine mammals, which are sensitive to noise pollution from the bridge construction. The expert will inform the developers of times when the animals are likely to be away from the project site.
“We have agreed to have two people from FPTB to do this task voluntarily,” said Suryanto.
However, Hamsuri of the FPTB said that the bridge-builders seem reluctant to inform his group about their plans.
“We’re pretty disappointed by the developers because they haven’t shown any sign of cooperativeness with us,” he said. “They keep saying they haven’t started any work for the bridge piers, but we have our sources who tell us otherwise.”
Hamsuri said his last contact, which was observed by Suryanto, took place in May.
“But we will still monitor their activities, and report them to the authorities if they continue without our supervision,” he added.
The beginnings of bridgework on the Balikpapan side. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
The current debate within the Balikpapan administration — which on Aug. 2 received a prestigious green award from the Indonesian government — centers on whether or not to elevate the access road, an expensive option some hope will maintain connectivity between the habitats of the coastal forest and the dryland forest, particularly in the Sungai Wain Protection Forest.
“Our decision is clear: we will not approve if the access road is connected by landed road,” said Suryanto. He added that the Balikpapan City Council has been in talks to find an affordable system to have a flyover connecting the access road.
Responding to concerns about increasing illegal logging and forest burning, Suryanto said the access road would be fenced off from the surrounding forests. “The locals won’t be able to open land as they wish,” he said.
Hamsuri, however, criticized the Balikpapan government’s monitoring efforts, especially after the forest fire in May and the growing claims of land ownership in the area.
“Whenever I comment on this, their response is always about the lack of budget for monitoring,” Hamsuri said. “So, what’s really their commitment for this?”
Suryanto referred to a 2014 Law on Regional Governance which has shifted the authority to manage protection forests to the provincial government. “The East Kalimantan government doesn’t set aside funding for [the management of the Sungai Wain Protection Forest] to us,” he said.
Left: two possible routes for the bridge, either via Balang Island or further south. Image courtesy of Stanislav Lhota. Right: work underway on the Balang Island side of the second span of the bridge. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.
An abandoned alternative
As the project kicked off in 2008, conservationists proposed alternative routes for the Pulau Balang bridge. They suggested the bridge and road be built at the southern edge of the bay, completely bypassing the mangroves and the rainforest. According to projections by Lhota, this alternative route involved higher upfront expenses but would be cheaper in the long run.
The local governments deemed the alternatives unfit for their development programs, especially for the North Penajam Paser district.
“[With the Pulau Balang bridge], Sepaku will be more developed as it’s a transmigration destination. And if we only rely on the ferry service, development will be very slow in the region,” said Riadi of the East Kalimantan government in Jakarta on July 18.
Officials also noted that the high upfront costs for the alternative plans would be a strain on the tight regional and state budgets, and that private sector funding is hard to source while Kalimantan remains so under-developed.
But the local governments’ regional development plans ring hollow to Lhota, who claims that profiting from land speculation was the true motivation for the construction of the Pulau Balang bridge. “The more forested areas that must be cleared, the more lands that will be freed and sold to speculators and companies,” he said.
FPTB’s Hamsuri also suggested that the alternative bridge and road would have required the Balikpapan government to tear down some established houses and factories. “It would’ve cost so much more to compensate the factories, compared to clearing the forests,” he said.
A proboscis monkey, one of the endangered species conservationists fear will be harmed by the bridge and its access road. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.
Despite the direct and indirect environmental damages, the project is scheduled for completion in 2019 with the central government setting aside 1.33 trillion rupiah from the state budget.
“We will accelerate the construction works [of the bridge] so that Balikpapan and North Penajam Paser can be connected by 2018,” said Basuki Hadimuljono, Minister of Public Works and Housing, in January 2016.
The local governments have maintained their stance that the benefits from the bridge development will far outweigh the losses.
“Our commitment to protect the environment for our future remains,” said Riadi. “We still want to work on the bridge and this could be an example of an infrastructure project that’s eco-friendly.”
But for Lhota, the local governments have failed to keep the environmental impacts to a minimum, labeling their approach as “highly propagandist.”
“The only way to minimize the environmental impact would be gazetting all the 5,000 hectares of forest along the road as a protected area. But in fact, the government did exactly the opposite thing – they proposed that the area around the road will be developed as an extension of the Kariangau Industrial Zone. This means that all forest and all wildlife corridors along the road will be destroyed,” he said.