Papua New Guinea's natural and cultural assets need careful management


Culturally one of the world’s most diverse countries, Papua New Guinea is widely considered to be the last frontier for tourism and business opportunities. The island of New Guinea hosts 6-8% of the world’s species, 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, combining to form less than 0.5% of the world’s total land area The country is an important exporter of natural resources (gold, copper, oil and natural gas) as well as agricultural products, with its cash crops including coffee, oil palm, cocoa, coconut and to a lesser extent tea and rubber. PNG also became a major exporter of gas in 2014, which has significantly increased the size and strength of its economy, and the $19bn PNG Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project was completed ahead of schedule and within budget. Since the first shipment of gas from PNG LNG was delivered to Japan in June 2014, more than 200 others have been delivered to Asian markets. The facility is expected to produce more than 9trn cu metres of gas over its 30-year lifespan and about 6.9m tonnes per year.

The Next Steps 

PNG benefits from its wealth of natural and cultural assets, but the challenge ahead will be to protect these facets of its heritage while emerging into the global economy. Increasing the overall economic value of tourism to the nation by doubling the number of annual visitors to PNG is seen as a great opportunity to diversify the country’s economic base. The industry is already worth PGK178bn ($60.8bn), according to the Tourism Promotion Authority, and provides 13,000 jobs, with tourists expected to spend PGK727m ($248.2m) in 2016. In recognition of the sector’s potential and importance to both the Medium Term Development Plan (MTDP) and PNG Vision 2050, the government has introduced tax incentives, such as double deductions for costs associated with export market development and 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, formerly a Dutch Colony, that has governed the western half of the island since 1962.

While 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 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. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), as of 2011 Port Moresby was home to an estimated 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 and Fly River.


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 fish, 132 amphibians, 43 reptiles, two birds and 12 mammals, according to the WWF. PNG is strongly associated with birds of paradise, sheltering 38 out of the world’s 42 known species. It 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, lizard, pigeon and orchid plant also call PNG home, as do the world’s only poisonous birds and 12 of the 14 known species of tree kangaroo.


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 rain falls onto 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 lows remain steady at an average of between 23-24°C, while daily highs vary from 28°C in July to 32°C in December and January. Despite a small 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 a variety of natural risks, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones, 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 within the Bismarck Volcanic Arc, in the south-west Pacific Ocean.

Between 1901 and 2000 the country suffered three droughts, 18 earthquakes, six floods, 10 volcanic eruptions and two tsunamis, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre. In May 2015 an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck 150 km south-west of the town of Panguna on Bougainville Island at a depth of 22 km, according to the Geophysical Observatory in Port Moresby.


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 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 years and 58.5 years, respectively. 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, with 25% of the population 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 and fowl are the dietary staples. Seafood also represents a large part of the diet in the 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. 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 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 850 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 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.


Christianity first arrived in PNG in the late 19th century. According to the 2011 census, some 96% of the population are Christian. The country is highly diverse in terms of denominational adherence, and many Papua New Guineans also combine indigenous religious practices with the faith. Furthermore, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. There is no 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% of adherents belong to various other Christian groups, including the Evangelical Alliance, and the Anglican, Baptist and Kwato churches.

Federal Government

PNG is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. A prime minister serves as head of the government, elected by the country’s 111-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-general elected by the parliament. The role is largely ceremonial.

Local Government

PNG is divided into 18 provinces, 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 some 40,000 years ago from Southeast 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. However, this seldom penetrated the land beyond coastal settlements, with colonisers mostly managing smallscale agricultural operations, primarily in palm oil and coffee. 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 Menezes, also Portuguese, landed on the Vogelkop Peninsula 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”.

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. The British, in a move to protect their interests in Australia, 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 of the same year, 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 between 1941 and 1945. Following the war, and under Australian administration, its name was changed to Papua New Guinea in 1972 in preparation for independence, which it received in 1975.

Natural Resources

Asian demand for natural gas will be met by existing projects until the year 2021 or 2022, beyond which analysts predict a shortfall in the market. It is believed that this can be filled by additional projects in PNG, such as the construction of a third LNG train by US multinational ExxonMobil and the development of the Elk-Anthelope gas field by French company Total and its partners. The PNG LNG plant has allowed the country to begin exporting gas at a rate that is expected to increase national export revenues three-fold in 2016.

While minerals and hydrocarbons dominate exports, around 85% of the country’s population is employed by the agricultural sector, which comprises approximately one-third of total GDP. PNG 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 17th-largest producer of coffee in 2010, accounting for almost 1% 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 annually – of which 99% was attributed to purse-seine fishing.

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Cover of The Report: Papua New Guinea 2016

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Papua New Guinea 2016. Explore other chapters from this report.

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