Great diversity in a small landmass

Comprising the eastern half of the largest tropical island on Earth, as well as hundreds of smaller adjacent islands, Papua New Guinea is home to a huge diversity of peoples, languages and cultures, and important biodiversity. In less than 0.5% of the world’s landmass, 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).

In addition, the country is an important exporter of valuable natural resources, including gold, copper and oil. It is also a key producer of agricultural products: the nation’s cash crops include coffee, oil palm, cocoa, coconut and, to a lesser extent, tea and rubber. The country is also expected to become a major exporter of natural gas in coming years, which will provide a significant hydrocarbons boost to the size and strength of the economy.

PNG’s authorities regard the country as a final frontier of resource and cultural development. The challenges ahead for PNG will be its ability to protect its cultural and environmental heritage while emerging into the global economy. The first shipment of natural gas from PNG’s liquefied natural gas (PNG LNG) project began in May 2014, and the country is poised to become a major global exporter, with production that will exceed 9trn cu metres of gas over the project’s 30-year lifespan.


Located in the Asia-Pacific and separated from the Cape York Peninsula in Australia by a 160-km-wide crossing of the Torres Strait, PNG anchors between 5-10°C south of the equator. The Solomon Sea borders the east and the Coral Sea stretches to the south and south-east. The country has a geographical surface of 462,840 sq km, a coastline of 5152 sq km, sheltered by an approximate 40,000 sq km of coral reefs and an 820-km land border with the Indonesian province of West Papua – formerly Irian Jaya, an ex-Dutch Colony, that 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 national capital, Port Moresby, is located on the south-eastern coast of the mainland and was named after Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby, by his son Captain John Moresby in 1873. As of 2011, Port Moresby was home to an estimated 318,000 persons – although estimates reach as high as 600,000 if one includes city settlements. The population is largely rural, though other main towns include Lae, which has a estimated population of around 200,000, and Mount Hagen, with about 40,000 people. The highlands region is located in the north and is made up of seven provinces, namely Enga, Hela, Jiwaka and Simbu provinces, and the Southern, Western and Eastern Highlands provinces.


The diverse interior of the country consists of spectacular highland valleys, lowland to mid-montane grasslands, vast expanses of rainforest, as well as ancient swamps and mangroves. Primary rainforest covers approximately 75% of PNG’s total land area. The mainland’s backbone consists of undulating mountain ranges and grassy lowlands that peak at Mount Wilhelm, the highest summit, which rises 4509 metres above sea level. Crisscrossing the country’s surface, acting as a lifeline in sustenance and access, are a collection of waterways, the largest of which are the Sepik, Purari, Markham, Morobe, Strickland, Kori and Fly Rivers.


Traversing New Guinea’s tropical topography is 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 of animal were discovered in New Guinea (an average of two a week), including: 218 plants, 580 invertebrates, 71 fishes, 132 amphibians, 43 reptiles, two birds and 12 mammals, according to the WWF. Marked for its diversity, PNG is associated with Birds of Paradise, harbouring 38 out of the world’s 42 known species, earning its eminent position on the nation’s flag. Found in coastal plains of Oro Province, PNG is also home to the world’s largest species of butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing at 30 cm in diameter, first discovered in 1906. The largest tree frog, lizard, pigeons and orchid plant also call PNG home, as do the world’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 over 7000 mm per annum recorded in Tabubil, which borders Indonesia. In comparison, an average of just 1179 mm falls in Port Moresby each year. PNG’s temperature and rainfall levels are subject to the region’s doldrums, the intersection of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the South Pacific Convergence Zone and the West Pacific Monsoon. As a result of its proximity to the equator, the annual temperatures in Port Moresby do not vary substantially. Daily lows average 23-24°C, while daily average highs vary between 28°C in July and 32°C in December and January. Despite a small respite in July and August, the humidity levels in the capital tend to be high for most of the year.

Pacific Rim Of Fire

The 12th most disaster prone country in the world, according to the UN World Resources Institute, PNG is located in the notorious “Pacific rim of fire”. It is exposed to a variety of natural risks, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones, volcanoes and systemic weather risks, such as flooding, and is strongly influenced by the ENSO El Nino cycle. PNG has 14 active and 22 dormant volcanoes. According to the Humanitarian Contingency Plan (2012) all of the dormant and 10 of the active volcanoes are located within the Bismarck Volcanic Arc, in the south-west Pacific Ocean. Between 1901 and 2000, there were three droughts, 18 earthquakes, six floods, six landslides, 10 volcanic eruptions, two tsunamis (the 1998 earthquake and tsunami resulted in the loss of 2182 lives), one wildfire and three windstorms, impacting 1,734,746 people, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre.


The indigenous population is primarily of Melanesian ancestry and places a strong emphasis on kinship, extended family bonds, as well as a strong attachment on communally held land. According to the National Statistical Office’s 2011 census results, PNGs population reached 7.3m people dwelling in 1,424,835 houses in 2011, the last year for which reliable figures are available.

The number of men in PNG outnumbered women by a wide margin, with 3.7m to 3.4m, respectively. There was an annual population growth rate of 2.8% from 2000 to 2011, and women could expect to outlive men between the years 2005 and 2010, when the average life expectancies were 63.2 years and 58.5 years, respectively, according to the UN Population Division. Overall, the populace is fairly young, with a median age of just under 22 years and an estimated 40% of the population under 15 years of age, according to the World Bank. Nearly 43% of the population inhabits the Highlands region, with 25% of the population in Mamose, 18% in the Southern provinces and the remaining 14% on the islands. Approximately 87.5% of the population lives in rural areas and primarily practices subsistence agriculture. Sweet potato, cassava, taro, bananas, pork, fowl and turtle 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 pockets of the population live in complete isolation, operating a non-monetised economy.

According to the National Statistics Office, the country’s population had increased to 7.3m in 2011 from 5.2m in 2000; however, the minister of national planning, Charles Abel, recently said that the figure could actually be as high as 7.8m.


PNG is home to over 850 distinct indigenous languages, each spoken by communities numbering 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. that was spread from Port Moresby by the local colonial constabulary, is spoken in the Papua side; whereas Melanesian Pidgin ( ber of domestic vernaculars, including the German spoken in the New Guinea region. Melanesian Pidgin is the lingua franca of PNG.


Christianity first arrived into PNG in the late 19th century by missionaries, and a near 97% of the population were nominally Christian in the 2000 consensus. 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 with 20%, the United Church (12%) and Seventh-day Adventism (10%). The country also has a small number of followers of the region’s indigenous belief systems, while Islam, Baha’ism and other faiths make up the remaining 10% of adherents. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and there is no state religion.

Federal Government

PNG is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. A prime minister serves as head of the government, elected by the country’s 109-member unicameral parliament, which is itself elected by popular vote every five years. The British monarch, reflecting the country’s colonial past, remains the official head of state and is represented through a local governor elected by the parliament. The role is largely ceremonial.

Local Government

The country is divided into 22 provinces: the autonomous region of Bougainville (made up of Bougainville Island and a number of other adjacent islands) and the National Capital District, where Port Moresby is located. government, headed by a provincial governor. In addition, the country has around 160 elected councils at the local level of government.

Colonial Ties

Recent archaeological evidence suggests the first hunter-gather ancestors of modern Papuans arrived some 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 subjugated by European colonisation efforts, and the Europeans managed small-scale agriculture with colonial plantations, primarily in palm oil and coffee. 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 and the British took possession of the southeast side, leaving the Dutch with the western half of Papua. In WWII, the territory faced Japanese invasion and Australian and PNG troops engaged in a particularly gruelling campaign for the island from 1941 to 1945. Following the war, and under Australia administration, its name was changed to Papua New Guinea in 1972 in preparation for independence, which it received in 1975.

Natural Resources

Peter Botten, managing director of Oil Search, observed in his presentation in the December 2012 Sydney Mining & Petroleum Conference that, since 1991, over $26bn had been invested into the oil and gas industries in PNG, with over $6bn being invested by the oil and gas sector in 2012 alone. Total mineral exports in 2009, excluding crude oil, were worth approximately $2.8bn, or 62% of all exports. The country will soon host a $19bn, 6.9m-tonnes-per-annum LNG facility, which began producing at full capacity in July 2014. The LNG plant will allow the country to begin exporting natural gas at a rate that is expected to increase national export revenues three-fold.

While minerals and hydrocarbons dominate exports, around 85% of the country’s population is employed in the agricultural sector, which comprises approximately one-third of total GDP. The country’s primary agricultural exports are coffee, tea, cocoa, coconuts and palm oil. The country was the world’s seventh-largest producer and third-largest exporter of palm oil in 2008 – accounting for 1.3% of global exports. PNG ranked as the world’s 17thlargest producer of coffee in 2010, accounting for roughly 0.7% of global production. In addition, according to the National Fisheries Authority, total annual catches of tuna averaged 482,401m tonnes per year between 2006 and 2010, representing 11% of the global catch on an annual basis, and 99% of which was attributed to the purse-seine fishing method.


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