New Internationalist

Papua New Guinea

January 2012

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.

Jocelyn Carlin/Panos
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
Papua New Guinea Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Peter O'Neill
Economy GNI per capita $1,180 (Solomon Islands $910, Australia 43,770)
Monetary unit Kina
Main exports Oil, gold, copper ore, logs, palm oil. Some 85% of people live by subsistence farming. Nevertheless, PNG has rich reserves not only of minerals such as copper, gold and nickel but also of gas and oil, and, though inaccessible terrain and poor infrastructure have hampered exploitation of these, they still account for almost two-thirds of export earnings. A consortium led by a major US oil company is building a liquefied natural gas production facility that it claims could double GDP and treble export earnings.
People 6.9 million. Population growth rate 2.8% pa. People per sq km 15 (UK 255).
Health Infant mortality 52 per 1,000 live births (Solomon Islands 30, Australia 4). The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the Asia-Pacific region, with a lifetime risk of maternal death of 1 in 94 (Australia 1 in 7,400). HIV prevalence rate 0.9% and rising fast – WHO has sounded the alarm about a potential explosion of HIV in PNG.
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.1 tonnes (US 20.6). The extent of logging in the rainforest is a concern – it is mainly conducted by Malaysian enterprises, many of whom have a questionable environmental record.
Culture The most heterogeneous nation on Earth. Some groups in the mountains have no contact with each other, let alone the outside world.
Religion Protestant 69%, Roman Catholic 27%, indigenous beliefs making up the rest.
Language The world’s most linguistically diverse nation, with estimates of the number of native tongues ranging between 700 and 860. Even the lower estimate would mean PNG contains 10% of all languages on the planet. Tok Pisin (Pidgin) is the main language, English and Motu are also official languages.
Human development index 0.466, ranking it 153rd in the world.
Last profiled link November 2000
Papua New Guinea ratings in detail
Income distribution
Some 85% of people live by subsistence farming. As income from extractive resources mushrooms over the next few years, it is vital that the revenue benefits the many rather than the few.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
61 years (Solomon Islands 67, Australia 82). The lowest life expectancy in the Asia-Pacific region.
Previously reviewed
60%. PNG’s gross primary enrolment ratio is the lowest in the world, at 59% of boys and 50% of girls.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Gender-based violence is Amnesty International’s top concern in PNG and domestic violence is endemic. Women are seriously under-represented in public life, though in November 2011 a new amendment to the constitution reserved 22 seats in Parliament for women.
Previously reviewed
PNG is a parliamentary democracy and a member of the Commonwealth. Among current concerns are forced evictions by police in the Highlands, the mining and logging industries riding roughshod over human rights and women with HIV being murdered by groups suspecting them of witchcraft
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal and male homosexual acts carry a potential penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The government is democratic and has signed up to most major international bodies, including the UN , WTO and IMF. However, ethnic loyalties often interfere with politics, and ethnic feuding continues to be a problem. Although the country is rich in resources, profits from exploitation of those by transnational corporations benefit an élite rather than the whole of society – and neither local nor national governments are assertive enough in combating corporate

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 449 This column was published in the January 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Neil 20 Aug 13

    Just letting you know that Tok Pisin isn't our main language at all. Similar to Enlish, it was introduced and is refered or regarded as a bastardized language.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Previously reviewed4
Life expectancy2
Previously reviewed2
Previously reviewed3
Position of women2
Previously reviewed2
Previously reviewed4
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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This article was originally published in issue 449

New Internationalist Magazine issue 449
Issue 449

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