Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea
Equality

In 1975 PNG finally gained its independence, largely due to the leadership of Michael Somare and his Pangu Party. In 1980, however, he lost a vote of no confidence, and successive governments were often chaotic and short-lived. Somare returned as Prime Minister in the 2002 elections but, following a lengthy illness, he was controversially replaced by Peter O’Neill in August 2011.

Flying into Papua New Guinea, the plane glides smoothly over kilometre after kilometre of rainforest. Trees appear like a broccoli carpet beneath you, then you suddenly descend, and the forest thins out until the sea, then the capital city of Port Moresby is visible, its shanty towns juxtaposed with modest office towers. The visual summary of the country as seen from the air is succinct: vast areas of wild, natural beauty, with a little modern development, and notable poverty.

The history of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a long one. Archaeologists believe humans began inhabiting the region as hunter-gatherers 60,000 years ago. Later, gardening and forest management was practised, and today’s key dietary staples include the foodstuffs that would have been gathered over the centuries, including bananas, which are thought to have been first cultivated here.

The Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to make contact with PNG, and the name of the country derives from this encounter: ‘Papua’ (meaning ‘frizzy hair’ in Malay) was coined by a Portuguese explorer, and ‘New Guinea’ comes thanks to a Spaniard, who thought the local people resembled those on the Guinea coast of Africa. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that Europeans had a real impact.

The demand for coconut oil led Germany to start trading with the islands, and in 1899 it took control of the territory, naming it German New Guinea. Control of the nation was subsequently seized by Britain, Australia, Japan and Britain again, until the country was formally placed under international trusteeship in 1949.

Rosa Wopon, 38, carries a hand of bananas she has just bought from a market

Jocelyn Carlin/Panos

In 1975 PNG finally gained its independence, largely due to the leadership of Michael Somare and his Pangu Party. In 1980, however, he lost a vote of no confidence, and successive governments were often chaotic and short-lived. Somare returned as Prime Minister in the 2002 elections but, following a lengthy illness, he was controversially replaced by Peter O’Neill in August 2011.

The country is a parliamentary democracy, and is often described wryly by locals as having ‘too much democracy’ – voters often have to select from over 100 candidates. This is a product of PNG’s ethnic diversity – people tend to vote along ethnic lines and it means that equal representation at all levels of politics is very difficult to achieve.

PNG’s biggest conflict has been on the island of Bougainville, where support for secession led to civil war in the early 1990s. After careful negotiations following a 1997 peace deal, a self-governing province called the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) was established in 2005, though some former soldiers have created illegal ‘no go zones’ in central and south ABG.

Mining dominates what industry PNG has – as well as providing its biggest environmental problems, as with the 1999 Ok Tedi disaster that spilled 80 million tons of contaminated tailings and harmed the health of 50,000 people. Social problems can also be laid at the door of the mining industry. Women have claimed, for example, that private security guards hired by the Barrick goldmine were responsible for gang rapes and other violent crimes on the site.

The wealth derived from copper, liquid gas and gold is poorly distributed – 85 per cent of PNG’s citizens still rely on subsistence farming, or on hunter-gathering in the case of uncontacted groups in the most remote forest areas. Inequality contributes to the rising incidence of serious violence, which has led to iron bars on the windows and doors of houses and businesses, and to the rise of ‘community watch’ groups that can tip into vigilantism. We can only hope that any dividends from the vast new $15-billion liquid gas project in the southern highlands, to be run by Exxon-Mobil, will be better shared.

Map of Papua New Guinea

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Last profiled http://www.newint.org/features/2000/11/05/profile/

At a glance

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  • Income distribution
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  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)