Cultural diversity and forward thinking steer PNG to a bright future

Culturally one of the world’s most diverse countries, Papua New Guinea is widely considered to be among the last frontiers for tourism and business opportunities. The island of New Guinea shelters 6-8% of global species, hosts one-sixth of known languages, and rivals Borneo, the Amazon and the Congo in terms of biodiversity, according to the Worldwide Wildlife Foundation (WWF). PNG comprises the eastern half of the largest tropical island on earth, along with hundreds of smaller adjacent islands, and its land area is less than 0.5% of the world’s total.

The country is also an important exporter of natural resources (gold, copper and oil) and agricultural products. Cash crops include coffee, oil palm, cocoa, coconut, and to a lesser extent tea and rubber. PNG also became a major exporter of gas in 2014, significantly increasing the size and strength of its economy, as the $19bn PNG liquefied natural gas (LNG) project was completed ahead of schedule and within budget. The first shipment of PNG LNG gas was delivered to Japan in June 2014, and production is expected to exceed 9trn cu metres over its 30-year lifespan, and 6.9m tonnes per year.


PNG takes pride in being a final frontier of natural and cultural development, but the challenge ahead is to protect the country’s heritage while becoming part of the global economy.

Increasing the economic value of tourism to the nation by doubling the number of tourists on holiday in PNG every year is seen as an opportunity to diversify the country’s economic base.

The industry already provides 13,000 jobs, while tourists on holiday in PNG are expected to spend PGK727m ($275m) in 2015. In recognition of the potential of the industry for the Medium-Term Development Plan and the PNG Vision 2050, the government has introduced tax incentives, such as double deductions for costs associated with export market development, and a double deduction for tourism staff training costs. Investors in large-scale tourist accommodation facilities may also be eligible for a concessional tax rate of 20%.


PNG is located in the Asia-Pacific region, and is separated from Australia’s Cape York Peninsula by the 160-km-wide Torres Strait. The Solomon Sea is to the east and the Coral Sea stretches to the south and south-east. The country has a surface area of 462,840 sq km, a coastline of 5152 sq km sheltered by 40,000 sq km of coral reefs, and an 820-km land border with the Indonesian province of West Papua, a former Dutch colony. Indonesia has governed the western half of the island since 1962.

Whilst the eastern half of the island of New Guinea is the country’s mainland, PNG also governs 600 smaller islets and archipelagos off its coast, as well as the islands of New Britain, New Ireland and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB). The country is quartered into four regions, the Highlands, Momase, Southern and New Guinea Islands.

The capital, Port Moresby, is located on the southeastern coast of the mainland, and was named after Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby by his son, Captain John Moresby, in 1873. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), as of 2011 Port Moresby was home to 364,125 people, although estimates reach as high as 633,881 if city settlements and the National Capital District (NCD) are included.

The country’s population is largely rural, though other main towns include Lae, which has a population of around 200,000, and Mount Hagen, with 40,000. The Highlands region in the north is made up of the provinces of Enga, Simbu, Hela, Jiwaka and the Southern, Western and Eastern Highlands.


PNG’s diverse interior consists of spectacular highland valleys, grasslands, vast expanses of rainforest, ancient swamps and mangroves. Primary rainforest covers around 75% of the country. The mainland’s backbone consists of undulating mountain ranges and grassy lowlands that rise to Mount Wilhelm, the highest summit. Crisscrossing the country’s surface, acting as a lifeline in terms of sustenance and access, are a collection of waterways, the largest of which are the Sepik, Purari, Markham, Morobe, Strickland, Kikori and Fly Rivers.


Traversing New Guinea’s tropical topography are 4.5% of the world’s known land mammals. New Guinea is also home to more than 800 species of birds and 25,000-30,000 vascular plants.

Between 1998 and 2008 at least 1060 new species were discovered in New Guinea, including 218 plants, 580 invertebrates, 71 fishes, 132 amphibians, 43 reptiles, two birds and 12 mammals, according to the WWF. PNG is also associated with birds of paradise, harbouring 38 of the world’s 42 known species, earning a place on the nation’s flag.

PNG is also home to the world’s largest species of butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing, which was first discovered in 1906 and is found in the coastal plains of Oro Province. The world’s largest species of tree frog, pigeon and orchid plant are also found in PNG, as are the planet’s only poisonous birds and 12 of the 14 known species of tree kangaroos.


Rainfall grades decline from the extreme north to the country’s south, with the highest average rainfall of over 7000 mm per annum recorded in Tabubil, which borders Indonesia. An average of 1179 mm of rains falls on Port Moresby every year. Temperature and rainfall are subject to the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the South Pacific Convergence Zone and the West Pacific Monsoon.

Given its close proximity to the equator, temperatures in Port Moresby do not vary substantially. Daily average lows remain at a steady 23-24°C, while daily average highs vary between 28°C in July and 32°C in December and January. Despite a slight respite that occurs in July and August, humidity levels in the capital are high for most of the year.

The 12th-most disaster-prone country in the world, PNG is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is exposed to various natural risks, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and volcanoes, and systemic weather risks, such as flooding.

PNG currently has 14 active and 22 dormant volcanoes. According to the Humanitarian Contingency Plan, all of the dormant and 10 of the active volcanoes are located in the Bismarck Volcanic Arc, in the south-west Pacific Ocean.

Between 1901 and 2000 the country suffered three droughts, 18 earthquakes and 10 volcanic eruptions, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre, and in May 2015 an earthquake measuring 7.2 magnitude on the Richter Scale struck 150 km south-west of the town of Panguna on Bougainville Island, according to the Geophysical Observatory in Port Moresby.


The indigenous population is primarily of Melanesian ancestry, emphasises kinship and extended family bonds, and has a strong attachment to communally held land.

According to the NSO’s 2011 census, PNG’s population was 7.28m. Males outnumbered females at 3.7m and 3.4m, respectively. With an annual population growth rate of 3.2% from 2000 to 2011, females could expect to outlive males between the years 2005 and 2010, with an average life expectancy of 63.2 and 58.5 years, respectively, according to the UN. The populace is fairly young, with a median age of just under 22 and an estimated 40% of the population under 15 years of age.

Some 43% of the population inhabits the Highlands region, followed by 25% in Mamose, 18% in the southern provinces and the remaining 14% on the islands. Around 88% of the population lives in rural areas and primarily practises subsistence agriculture. Sweet potato, cassava, taro, bananas, pork, fowl and fish are the dietary staples. Seafood also represents a large part of the diet in the country’s coastal regions.

Much of the hinterland remains remote, and the country’s topography means that there are pockets of the population that live in complete isolation, operating a non-monetised economy. The minister of national planning, Charles Abel, recently said that the population could actually be as high as 7.8m, and that the government has launched a strategy for responsible sustainable development that carries at its core the issue of population growth.

According to Abel, the current estimated population growth rate of 3.5% a year is unsustainable, hindering the capacity of the government to deliver adequate services when it comes to education and health care, especially in rural areas.


PNG has over 800 indigenous languages, each spoken by communities of just a few hundred people. However, the country has only three official languages. English is the language of government and business, and is widely spoken in urban areas. Hiri Motu, a trade language that was spread from Port Moresby by the colonial constabulary, is spoken on the Papua side, while Melanesian Pidgin, or Tok Pisin, which borrows from a number of domestic vernaculars, serves as PNG’s lingua franca.


Christianity arrived in PNG in the late 19th century. According to the 2000 census, some 97% of the population were nominally Christian. The country is highly diverse in terms of denominational adherence, and many Papua New Guineans combine indigenous religions with Christianity. Roman Catholicism – which 27% of the population follows – is the largest denomination, followed by Evangelical Lutheranism (20%), the United Church (12%) and Seventh-day Adventism (10%). PNG also has a small number of followers of indigenous belief systems. Islam, Baha’ism and other faiths make up the remaining 10%. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and there is no state religion.

National Government

PNG is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. A prime minister serves as the head of government, elected by the country’s 109-member unicameral parliament, which is itself elected by popular vote every five years.

The British monarch, reflecting PNG’s colonial past, remains the official head of state and is represented through a local governor elected by parliament. The role is largely ceremonial.

Local Government 

PNG is divided into 22 provinces, the ARB (made up of Bougainville Island and a number of other adjacent islands) and the NCD, where Port Moresby is located. Each province has an elected assembly and local government, headed by a provincial governor as well as a system of local governors. In addition, the country has around 160 elected councils at the local level of government.

Colonial Ties

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first hunter-gather ancestors of modern Papuans arrived 40,000 years ago from South-east Asia, with some of the earliest known agricultural activities dating back at least 10,000 years.

New Guinea was one of the final areas of the globe to be subjected to European colonisation. The first European to see New Guinea was probably the Portuguese navigator Antonio d’Arbreu in 1512, although unrecorded Indonesian and Chinese seafarers certainly arrived there first. Jorge de Menese, also Portuguese, landed on the Vogelkop Peninsula in 1526, dubbing one the islands Ilhas dos Papuas, from the Malay Orang papuwah, which roughly translates as “the land of the fuzzy people”.

In 1660 the Dutch authorities in the East Indies declared sovereignty, though it was not until 1828 that a settlement was made on the Vogelkop, followed by a series of claims by the British. In 1884, the north-east of the island was annexed by Germany. To protect their interests in Australia, the British took formal possession of the south-east, leaving the Dutch with the western half of Papua.

In 1906 British New Guinea was renamed Papua and its administration was handed to an independent Australia. On August 4, 1914 Britain declared war on Germany, and by September 17 Eduard Haber, the governor of German New Guinea, agreed on terms of surrender to the Australian forces. In 1920 the former German territory was handed to Australia by the League of Nations.

During the Second World War, the territory faced Japanese invasion, and Australian and Papua New Guinean troops engaged in a gruelling campaign for the island from 1941 to 1945. Under Australian administration, its name was changed to Papua New Guinea in 1972 in preparation for independence, which it gained in 1975.

Natural Resources

PNG is rich in natural resources. According to Peter Botten, managing director of Oil Search, since 1991 over $26bn has been invested in the oil and gas industry in PNG, with over $6bn being invested by the sector in 2012 alone. This figure did not take in consideration the completion of the PNG LNG project.

According to Botten, demand for gas in Asia will be supplied by existing projects until 2022, beyond which a shortfall will occur, most likely to be filled by additional projects in PNG like the forecast third LNG train by ExxonMobil and the development of the Elk-Antelope field by France’s Total and its partners. The country has already started exporting gas from the LNG facility, and has completed the first year of full production. The LNG plant will allow PNG to begin exporting gas at a rate that is expected to increase national export revenues three-fold.

While minerals and hydrocarbons dominate exports, 85% of the country’s population is employed in the agricultural sector, which accounts for around one-third of GDP. The primary agricultural exports are coffee, tea, cocoa, coconuts and palm oil.

PNG was the world’s seventh-largest producer and third-largest exporter of palm oil in 2008, accounting for 1.3% of global exports. The country was the 17th-largest producer of coffee in 2010, accounting for 0.7% of global production.

In addition, according to figures from the National Fisheries Authority, total annual catches of tuna averaged around 482,000 tonnes between 2006 and 2010, representing some 11% of the global catch.

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The Report: Papua New Guinea 2015

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