Papua New Guinea
issue 208 - June 1990
Papua New Guinea
Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), could be any sleepy Australian port town with its sprawling bungalows and smattering of high-rise buildings. But the predominance of Melanesian faces marks the difference.
The country was formed when the British colony of Papua in the south and the German colony of' New Guinea in the north were placed under Australian control after World War One - but, it was not granted independence until 1975. PNG rightly prides itself on the natural beauty of its mountains and rainforest but these features have also formed barriers to a sense of nationhood.
Since 1975 the government has changed four times - always constitutionally, either through elections or parliamentary votes. PNG is governed in the Westminster tradition, but because of the diversity of the country, no single group has achieved dominance.
The comparatively late process of development and independence in PNG has led to rapid change. It is not so long ago that most Papua New Guineans would never have seen a white person or even a wheel. Yet now the country is coping with the fast urbanization, labour migrancy and violence that afflicts all modem nations.
Tumultuous though the changes are, no-one starves in PNG. Up to 97 per cent of the land remains in communal hands and 'subsistence affluence' remains an option for the 80 per cent who are rural dwellers. But more broad-based progress and economic growth has eluded the country for much the same reason that it has suffered no coups or dictators: intense, counter-balancing political rivalry based on fluid regional and personal groupings whose ideological shadings are barely discernible.
Since late 1987 PNG has faced its greatest and most murderous challenge: a violent rebellion by alienated young landowners on the south-eastern island of Bougainville. They sought independence from PNG and forced the closure of a huge mine which supplies two per cent of the world's copper.
A ceasefire was agreed in March 1990, after more than 100 lives were lost, and negotiations opened between the rebels and the nation's founding Prime Minister, Michael Somare, concerning a new constitutional arrangement. Port Moresby had been especially anxious because the hostilities threatened the development of major new gold mines and an oilfield, which it saw as the engine for growth in the 1990s.
Internationally, PNG has been seen as a 'bridge' nation between Asia and the South Pacific, a concept about which it remains guarded. As Foreign Secretary Bill Dihm says, 'People walk over bridges'.
Leader Head of State Queen Elizabeth II; Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu
Economy GNP per capita US $740 (US $18,530)
Monetary unit: PNG Kina
Economy is open and trade-driven, with a freely convertible 'hard' currency. Exports are copper, gold, coffee, cocoa, palm oil, copra, tea, timber and fish.
People 3.6 million
Health Infant mortality: 59 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
Culture Almost entirely Melanesian, the largest nation in the Melanesian Spearhead political forum which links PNG with Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in strong support of independence for the Melanesian Kanaks of French colony New Caledonia.
Religion: Christian, especially Roman Catholic, with continuing animism.
Language: More than 800 languages are spoken The official languages are English, Pidgin and Mutu.
Sources: State of the World's Children 1990 and information supplied by author.
Last profiled in July 1980
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.