A variety of cultures and landcapes throughout PNG

Papua New Guinea is a vast archipelago, with the eastern half of New Guinea, the largest tropical island on Earth, and hundreds of smaller adjacent islands. Known for its unique flora and fauna, the country is famous for its environmental variety. However, with more than 850 languages spoken within its borders, it can also be considered one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world.

While it enjoys heterogeneous landscapes and cultures, PNG is seen as a frontier country in economic terms. Hydrocarbons and mining are the cornerstones of production, but there is significant scope for development in nearly all other sectors. Agriculture and tourism in particular are seen as prime engines for diversification, offering potential to generate much-needed foreign exchange and employment opportunities.

The island nation is a key exporter of hydrocarbons, mining and agricultural products, with cash crops including coffee, palm oil, cocoa, coconut, and to a lesser extent, tea and rubber. PNG became a major exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2014, which resulted in a notable uptick in the size and strength of its economy. A second LNG project is in the planning phases, which is anticipated to further bolster economic output in the coming years. Two prominent gold mines in the Morobe and Sepik Provinces present additional opportunities in exports for extractive industries.

Historic Roots

The earliest archaeological traces of human life in PNG date back at least 40,000 years, with inhabitants thought to have arrived across a long-vanished land bridge from other parts of South-east Asia. Some of the earliest-known agricultural activities took place in the region, with irrigation works dating back at least 10,000 years.

In the 14th century the Javanese Majapahit Empire had contact with Onin, a kingdom in Western Papua. New Guinea was one of the final areas in the world to be subjected to European colonisation, and its relative isolation explains the cultural and linguistic diversity that have persisted in PNG to this day.

European influence seldom penetrated beyond coastal settlements for several centuries, with colonisers mostly managing small-scale agricultural operations, especially in palm oil and coffee. The first European contact with New Guinea likely occurred in 1512 upon the arrival of Antonio d’Arbreu, a Portuguese navigator, although unrecorded Indonesian and Chinese seafarers certainly arrived on the island before this. Jorge de Menezes, another Portuguese explorer, landed on the Vogelkop Peninsula of West Papua in 1526, dubbing one of the islands Ilhas dos Papuas, from the Malay Orang papuwah, which roughly translates to “the land of the fuzzy people”. Spanish explorers who subsequently sailed to the island named it Nueva Guinea.

The east of the island remained virtually unexplored by Europeans until the 1880s, when – following expeditions by the Russian anthropologist Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai in the previous decade – the German Empire annexed the north-east, including the Niugini Islands, and the British Empire annexed the south-east portion of the island. The western region had come under Dutch influence in the 17th century, which was officially recognised by Britain and Germany in 1885 and 1895, respectively.

Australian Influence

Following the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, control of then-British New Guinea was transferred to the new Australian government – a move that began a long-standing connection between the two countries. In 1905 Australia passed the Papua Act, renaming it the Territory of Papua, with direct Australian rule beginning in 1906. Meanwhile, in the north-east, the German New Guinea Company exercised sovereign rights over the territory until 1899, when the German government took direct control. This lasted until the outbreak of the First World War, when Australian troops took over the colony.

In 1920 Australia was given a mandate from the League of Nations to run the former German colony, then named the Territory of New Guinea with Rabaul as its capital. While the Japanese army arrived in the Second World War and conquered several islands in New Guinea, Australia remained in power of the mainland. Between this 1941 invasion and the end of the war in 1945, some of the toughest parts of the conflict occurred on the mainland, as the Japanese forces advanced on Port Moresby. Eventually, Australian and US troops beat back the invading army. The influence of Australian rule can still be observed along the Kokoda Track: it was a strategic route through the Owen Stanley Range that was fiercely fought over and remains an important place of pilgrimage for a large number of Australians.

Following the Second World War, in 1949 the former Australian and German colonies were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. A legislative council and a system of local government were established, with the former replaced by the House of Assembly in 1963.

Geography

PNG is located in the Asia-Pacific region, separated from Australia’s Cape York Peninsula by the 160-km wide Torres Strait. The Solomon Sea lies 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, which remained a Dutch colony until 1962.

PNG’s diverse interior consists of highland valleys, grasslands, vast expanses of rainforest, ancient swamps and mangroves. Primary rainforest covers approximately three-quarters of the landscape, while the mainland’s backbone is composed of mountain ranges and grassy lowlands that rise to Mount Wilhelm, the highest summit. Criss-crossing the surface and 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 and Fly Rivers.

Topography

While the eastern half of the island of New Guinea is the mainland, PNG also governs around 600 smaller islets and archipelagos off its coast, as well as the islands of New Britain, New Ireland, Manus and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. The country is divided into four regions: the Highlands, Momase, Southern and New Guinea Islands. The capital, Port Moresby, is on the south-eastern coast of the mainland and was named after British Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby by his son, Captain John Moresby, in 1873.

The latest census undertaken by the National Statistical Office was in 2011, which found that Port Moresby was home to approximately 364,000 people. However, subsequent estimates reach as high as 634,000 if city settlements and the National Capital District are included.

Other important urban areas include Lae, which is the capital of the Morobe Province and has a population of around 200,000; Mount Hagen, with 40,000 inhabitants; and Madang with about 30,000. The country remains largely rural, though official estimates of the population distribution will not be made until the next census, planned for 2021.

Bougainville

Situated at the easternmost edge of the New Guinea islands and in a different time zone from the rest of PNG, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville comprises two large islands, Buka and Bougainville, separated by a narrow tidal channel. Together with more than 200 smaller islands and countless atolls, it forms an archipelago that is geographically, geologically and culturally closer to the neighbouring Solomon Islands than to the rest of PNG. Bougainville has more than 300,000 inhabitants who speak a dozen different languages. The other major groups of islands in the autonomous province are Nukumanu, Takuu, Nuguria, Nissan, Tulun and Motlock, all located on strips of coral rising no more than one metre above sea level.

Under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, the government of PNG amended the national constitution to guarantee a referendum on Bougainville’s future political status, to be held between 10 and 15 years after the election of the first autonomous government of the region. The target date for this has been set for June 15, 2019.

Biodiversity

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 more than 1000 new species were discovered in New Guinea, including 218 plants, 580 invertebrates, 71 fish, 132 amphibians, 43 reptiles, 12 mammals and two birds, all housed in the third-largest rainforest on earth, after only the Amazon and Congo, according to the World Wildlife Fund. PNG is strongly associated with birds-of-paradise, sheltering 38 of the 42 known species. It is also home to several of the world’s largest species, including the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly, which was first discovered in 1906 and is found in the coastal plains of the Oro Province, as well as the biggest tree frog; lizard; pigeon; and orchid plant species known to man. PNG also hosts the only poisonous birds known to exist and 12 of the 14 known species of tree kangaroo.

Climate 

Rainfall grades decline from the extreme north to the country’s south, with the highest average rainfall of more than 700 cm per year recorded in Tabubil, which borders Indonesia. Port Moresby sees an average of 118 cm of rain every year. Temperatures and rainfall are subject to the Intertropical 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 throughout the year. Daily lows remain steady at an average of 23-24°C, while daily highs vary from 28°C in July to 32°C in December and January.

The 12th-most disaster-prone country in the world, PNG is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. This leaves the country vulnerable to a variety of natural risks, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and volcanoes, as well as systemic weather risks, such as flooding. The area is very seismically active, with 14 active and 22 dormant volcanoes as of 2018. According to the Humanitarian Contingency Plan, all of the dormant and 10 of the active volcanoes are located within the Bismarck Volcanic Arc in the south-west Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre reports that over the course of the 20th century, the country suffered three droughts, 18 earthquakes, six floods, 10 volcanic eruptions and two tsunamis. February 2018 brought another significant disaster, with a magnitude-7.5 earthquake hitting Hela Province in the Highlands Region, followed by strong aftershocks, which caused around 200 deaths and extreme damage to several LNG and mining facilities.

Hydrocarbons

The country is an important exporter of natural resources. The $19bn PNG LNG project has boosted the economy since 2014, with this facility producing around 6.9m tonnes per year and expected to have a total output of more than 9trn cu metres of gas over its 30-year lifespan. Since the first shipment of gas was brought to Japan in June 2014, more than 200 deliveries have been made to Asian markets. Existing production initiatives are projected to meet demand from Asia through 2021 or 2022, after which analysts predict a shortfall in the market. However, this undersupply could be offset by the proposed three-train LNG expansion project which would see one train dedicated to gas from the existing ExxonMobil-led PNG LNG project and two dedicated to gas from the Papua LNG project, which is being led by Total along with Oil Search, the PNG government and ExxonMobil.

Mining Activity

Mining also remains a significant contributor to the economy. Gold and copper are the main sector outputs, followed by much smaller percentages of nickel and cobalt. The biggest facility is Newcrest’s gold mine on Lihir Island. The state-run company Ok Tedi’s copper mine in the Star Mountains of the Western Province is the second-largest, followed by the Porgera gold mine, located more than 2000 metres above sea level in the Enga Province. Other locations include the Ramu nickel and cobalt mine, the Hidden Valley gold and silver mine, Simberi gold mine and Alluvial Exports. The PanAust Frieda River copper-gold project in the West Sepik Province and Wafi-Golpu – an initiative located in the Morobe Province under the management of Wafi-Golpu Joint, an equally split joint venture between Newcrest and Harmony Gold – are two further programmes with significant output potential.

Agriculture

Minerals and hydrocarbons dominate exports, but agriculture is the largest employer in the country, providing jobs for around 85% of the economically active population, and accounting for approximately one-third of GDP. Meanwhile, the country is known for its fertile soil and agricultural potential, with signature cash crops including coffee, palm oil, cocoa, coconut, copra, and to a lesser degree, tea and rubber (see Agriculture chapter).

PNG was the seventh-largest producer and fifth-largest exporter of palm oil in the world in 2018, having accounted for 1.2% of global exports. Coffee was an important output as well, with the country standing as the 29th-largest producer in 2016 and accounting for almost 1% of global production. In addition, according to the National Fisheries Authority, total annual catches of tuna averaged 150bn-200bn tonnes per year, representing about 10% of the global catch, with potential resources at 250bn-300bn tonnes per year. These figures are not inclusive of illegal takes from foreign-flagged vessels fishing in PNG waters.

Population 

The indigenous population is primarily of Melanesian ancestry and places a strong emphasis on kinship, extended family bonds and a strong attachment to communally held land. According to 2011 census by the National Statistical Office, PNG had a population of about 7.28m, but a 2016 estimation by the World Bank pegs this at more than 8m, with other approximations running even higher.

The 2011 census found that the population grew by around 3.2% per year since the beginning of the century, with males outnumbering females at 3.7m to 3.4m, respectively. Regardless, the life expectancy of women exceeded that of men, at 63.2 years compared to 58.5 years. The populace is fairly young, with a median age of just under 22 and an estimated 40% of Papua New Guineans under 15 years of age.

The Highlands Region is the most populated part of the country, with some 43% of inhabitants, followed by 25% in Mamose, 18% in the southern provinces and the remaining 14% on the islands. PNG has not seen the same urbanisation as other countries, with 88% of the population living in rural areas. People primarily practise subsistence agriculture, with sweet potato, cassava, taro, bananas, pork and fowl serving as the dietary staples. Seafood also represents a large part of the diet in the coastal regions.

Much of the hinterlands remains remote, and due to the country’s geographical makeup, pockets of the population live in complete isolation, operating on a non-monetised economy.

Languages

PNG has more than 850 indigenous languages, each spoken by communities of just a few hundred people. However, there are only three official languages, with English widely spoken in urban areas and serving as the language of government and business. Hiri Motu, a trade language that was spread from Port Moresby by the local colonial constabulary, is spoken on the Papua side, while Melanesian Pidgin, or Tok Pisin, which borrows from a number of vernaculars serves as PNG’s lingua franca.

Religion

Christianity first arrived in PNG in the late 19th century, with some 96% of the population identifying as Christian in the 2011 census. The country is highly diverse in terms of denominational adherence, and many Papua New Guineans combine indigenous religious practices with the Western faith. Furthermore, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, with no official state religion. Of the Christian population, 26% affiliate themselves with Roman Catholicism, followed by Evangelical Lutheranism (18%), Seventh-day Adventism (13%), Pentecostalism (10%) and the United Church (10%). The other 23% belong to various other Christian groups, including the Evangelical Alliance, and the Anglican, Baptist and Kwato churches.

National Government

PNG is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. The 111-member unicameral Parliament – consisting of 89 members from open electorates and 22 governors from provincial electorates – elects a prime minister to serve as head of government every five years. Reflecting the country’s colonial past, the British monarch remains the official head of state and is represented through a local governor-general elected by Parliament. However, this role is largely ceremonial, with several prominent members of society bequeathed with the designation of “lady” or “sir”.

Local Government

PNG is divided into 20 provinces plus the Autonomous Region of Bougainville – made up of Bougainville Island and adjacent islands – and the National Capital District, where Port Moresby is located. Each province has an elected assembly and local government, headed by a provincial governor, as well as local governors. Additionally, there are around 160 locally elected councils.

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Cover of The Report: Papua New Guinea 2018

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Papua New Guinea 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.