China-funded eco-city threatens Indonesian islanders' way of life

Dandy Koswaraputra
Pasir Panjang, Indonesia
China-funded eco-city threatens Indonesian islanders' way of life Ramli Ali fishes near his home in Pasir Panjang on Rempang Island, Indonesia, Nov. 7, 2023.
Hadi Ahdiana/BenarNews

Ramli Ali wipes tears from his eyes as he contemplates a new development project that threatens to displace his family from its ancestral home on Rempang island.

His wooden-stilt house in Pasir Panjang, one of 16 traditional villages on the tranquil islet near Singapore, is set for demolition to make way for a multibillion-dollar Chinese glass and solar panel factory.

The government plans to relocate 7,500 residents for the project, called Rempang Eco-City, which is part of a national strategy to attract foreign investment and stimulate economic growth. But for Ramli and many other indigenous Malay people on the island, it is a threat to their livelihood, culture and identity.

“I was born here. My parents and grandparents were also born here,” Ramli told BenarNews between tears.

“If I had to move, where would I move? I'm not sure if I can manage my life in the future. I’m not well educated,” said the 53-year-old fisherman.

Rempang Eco-City is one of several national strategic projects spearheaded by outgoing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who entered office in 2014 on a pledge to improve infrastructure across Indonesia's more than 17,000 islands and capitalize on foreign investment.

When he steps down next year, he will leave behind a legacy of mega-developments like the Mandalika tourism zone on Lombok island, the China-funded Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, and the new capital city on Borneo island.

But many of these have faced resistance and criticism from local communities, who have raised concerns about their social and environmental impacts. 

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Ramli Ali (third left) takes part in a rally outside the Batam District Court ahead of a pretrial hearing regarding the arrest of protesters opposed to the Rempang Eco-City project, in Batam, Indonesia, Nov. 6, 2023. [Hadi Ahdiana/BenarNews]

Some of the projects have resulted in land disputes, forced evictions and human rights violations, affecting thousands of people, especially the poor, the marginalized and the indigenous.

Dewi Kartika, the secretary general of the Agrarian Reform Consortium, a group that advocates for land rights, said there had been at least 73 cases of land disputes involving projects that the government has deemed as nationally strategic since 2020.

“We have witnessed that security personnel often resort to brutality and excessive force to forcibly evict people from their lands,” she told BenarNews. 

The simmering land dispute over Rempang Eco-City exploded into the open in September, when residents protesting relocation clashed with police and damaged public facilities in Batam, the largest island in Riau Islands province.

Some 43 people were arrested for alleged violence during the demonstrations, including Ramli’s 23-year-old son Rafi.

The suspects' lawyers filed a pretrial lawsuit against the police following the clash, challenging the legality of their arrest and detention. 

However, the Batam District Court rejected the legal challenge on Nov. 6, ruling that the police had followed the proper procedure and had sufficient grounds to detain the suspects. Police said the protesters had blocked the road and thrown stones at the security forces during the demonstration.

Ancestral claims

Rempang Eco-City is a joint venture between the Batam Authority and a local company, PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG), which has partnered with China’s Xinyi International Investment Ltd.

During a visit by Jokowi to China in July, Xinyi made a commitment to invest U.S. $11.6 billion in a glass and solar-panel manufacturing plant in Rempang — the second largest of its kind in the world.

Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia said the factory would create 35,000 jobs and the entire Rempang Eco-City project would bring in an estimated 381 trillion rupiah (U.S. $26.6 billion) in investment by 2080.

Once completed, Rempang Eco-City will include a 2,000-hectare (4,942 acres) industrial park and a 15,600-hectare (39,000 acres) residential and commercial area on the island.


The government has justified the eviction of residents by arguing MEG was granted a permit to develop the area in 2004. Moreover, the government has eminent domain powers to acquire the land, because it is classified as of national strategic importance.

Dedi Arman, a senior researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency, said that Jakarta should respect the ancestral claims of the indigenous communities on the island.

“The island has been home to these communities for countless generations, and their cultural heritage and connection to the land are deeply woven into its fabric,” he told BenarNews. 

Relocation would not only displace them, but jeopardize their unique way of life, traditions and knowledge systems that have sustained them for centuries, he said.

Boy Jerry Evan Sembiring, the deputy director of the environmental group Walhi in neighboring Riau province, said that mining for silica sand and quartz sand – raw materials used to make glass – would have a devastating impact on the marine ecosystems and fishing industry.

“This destructive activity not only disturbs the delicate balance of marine ecosystems but also disrupts the natural habitats of fish and other marine species,” he told BenarNews. 

The resulting pollution, sedimentation, and habitat destruction can lead to a significant decline in fish populations, ultimately jeopardizing the livelihoods of Rempang fishermen who have existed since 1870, he said.

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Rempang Island is connected via the Barelang Bridge to Batam island in Riau Islands province, Indonesia, in this photo taken on Nov. 9, 2023. [Hadi Ahdiana/BenarNews]

Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD said that 80% of residents had agreed to be relocated, local media reported in September. 

Each relocated family is to be provided with 500 square meters of land and a 45-square meter house worth 120 million rupiah (U.S. $7,600), as well as monthly allowances and job opportunities.

Authorities hope to start building the new residential area in January next year, according to Batam Mayor Muhammad Rudi, who is also the head of the Batam Indonesia Free Trade Zone Authority, the central government agency that oversees the project. 

Not all of the indigenous people are opposed to the project. Some of them like Leli Alel, 53, have decided to leave his home and accept the government’s offer. He said he wanted to try his luck and find a better life in the city.

“I can work as a construction worker and still catch fish. I think it is a good opportunity for me and my family,” he said, sitting in a temporary shelter in Batam city, where he moved three months ago with his wife and son.

But for Ramli and many others, leaving their ancestral island is not an option. They are determined to resist the project and fight for their rights, even if it means risking their lives and freedom.

“I am not against development. I just want them to care about our rights and treat us as citizens,” Ramli said.


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