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Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

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Papua New Guinea

‘What does Independence mean? It means the freedom to make choices and the capacity to implement them,’ says Sir Mekere Morauta, current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

This year the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of its independence. But the mood is not necessarily celebratory. ‘The truth is we have fallen short of the mark,’ Morauta continues. ‘Our economy is still vulnerable and fragile; our social indicators are very poor. In fact they are worse than they were in the early days of Independence.’

As a nation, PNG should have been able to reap the rewards of its rich natural resources. Since the Portugese explorer Jorge de Meneses stumbled on the country in 1527 and named it Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs), its forest, mineral and marine resources have been sought after. Variously claimed by the Dutch and the Germans, the country eventually came under British control and was passed over to Australia at the end of World War Two. PNG’s post-independence colonial inheritance includes English as an official language, a Westminster-style system of government and a host of Australian mining companies.

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Chris Sattleberger / Panos

Mining has shaped PNG. If it were not for gold prospectors in the 1930s, the world would have continued to believe that Papuans lived only on the coast. Instead these miners found about a million people – almost a quarter of the total Melanesian population of PNG – thriving in the secluded valleys of the central highlands.

While indigenous people traditionally own 98 per cent of land, a European system of law stipulates that what is six feet below the ground belongs to the national government. Resentment at the selling of mining rights and the transfer of mining levies to the capital was one of the elements that ignited rebellion on the island of Bougainville and, in 1989, closed down Panguna, the largest mine in the world. More recently, the Ok Tedi mine on the mainland has provided 10 per cent of GDP but has also destroyed over 1,000 square kilometres of wetlands and forest. Both of these mines were run by Australian and British companies and the national economy still betrays the country’s colonial ties. Although the Asian Development Bank, IMF, World Bank and Japan have recently assisted PNG, Australia remains its single largest aid donor and has provided about two-thirds of all aid over the last decade.

Most people are involved in agriculture which employs about four-fifths of the national workforce and accounts for a third of GNP. In contrast the country’s chief industry – mining – delivers an eighth of GNP and employs less than one per cent of the workforce. PNG’s ‘development’ over the past 25 years has not increased employment opportunities for those living in the cities. In a nation where 69 per cent of the population is under 30 years of age, unemployment plus the lack of educational opportunities has led to crime in urban areas, most notably in the capital, Port Moresby.

Yet perhaps PNG’s greatest achievement is nationhood itself. The Government is committed to a peace process in Bougainville, where fighting ceased in 1998, and it has accommodated an influx of 7,500 refugees fleeing Indonesian-ruled West Papua. While neighbours such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands have been recently rocked by inter-ethnic fighting, the co-existence of over 700 linguistic groups in PNG – and the maintenance of their cultural identities – is a genuine cause for celebration.

Anouk Ride

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At a glance

Leader: Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta.

Economy: GNP per capita $930 (Indonesia $1,110, Australia $20,650).
Main exports: gold, copper, oil, coffee beans, forest products.
Monetary unit: Kina.
PNG has large mineral reserves but inaccessible terrain means it is difficult to make the most of them. Public debt is more than 65 per cent of GDP.

People: 4.6 million.
People per square kilometre: 10 (US 29).

Health: Infant mortality 79 per 1,000 live births (Indonesia 40, Australia 5). High rates of infectious and preventable diseases. PNG has the highest rate of hiv/aids transmission in the Pacific.

Environment: The mainland and larger islands consist of volcanic mountains covered in forest and narrow coastal plains. There has been major deforestation due to indiscriminate logging.

Culture: Most people in PNG are Papuan in origin but around 15% are Melanesian (related to the islanders of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia).
Religion: Many people practise traditional religions but also consider themselves Christian: 58% Protestant and 33% Catholic.
Language: English is the official language but there are hundreds of local languages as well as a Pidgin with English words and Melanesian grammar. PNG culture is based on the wantok: a group of people speaking one language.

Sources: World Guide 1999/2000; State of the World’s Children 2000; Asia & Pacific Review.

Last profiled June 1990

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income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION
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Most Papuans are equal in the sense that they live at subsistence level. But the 24,000 wealthy foreign residents live under heavy guard.
1990 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
self-reliance SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Many live off the land but many basic foodstuffs that could be grown locally are imported. Reliance on aid is also great.
1990 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
position of women POSITION OF WOMEN
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Around 60 per cent of PNG women have been victims of domestic violence - the second highest rate in the world after Pakistan.
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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72% compared with only 45% ten years ago. Primary-school enrolment stands at 80% but less than 15% go to secondary school.
1990 [image, unknown]
FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A relatively free political system is marred by the ongoing practice of politicians winning posts based on tribal affiliation rather than policies. 
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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
58 years
(Indonesia 65, Australia 78).
1986 [image, unknown]
life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Government has only held power for a year but has sworn to be more accountable, transparent and to reduce financial instability for poor Papuans. It has continued the Bougainville peace process and is tackling violence in the larger cities. But economic policies are heavily reliant on conventional Western models and the backing of international banks.

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New Internationalist issue 329 magazine cover This article is from the November 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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