Papua New Guinea
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Papua New Guinea

Lying just south of the equator, 160km north of Australia, Papua New Guinea  has a total land mass of about The country encompasses the eastern side of New Guinea Island - the second largest island in the world, plus some 600 other islands, atolls and coral reefs.


A central core of mountains, the Owen Stanley Range, runs east to west, rising steeply from the coastal plains. From its highest peaks such as 4500 metre high Mt Wilhelm and from downs of other peaks, rivers like the Sepik (one of the world's longest waterways) and Fly River begin their journey to the sea. Below the mountain chain, fertile coastal plains, flooded delta regions and mangrove swamps exist alongside broad sandy beaches, colourful sheltered bays and dense rainforest.


Vast tracts of the country are wild and undeveloped. The terrain has made it difficult for any transportation infrastructure to be developed and in some areas aeroplanes are the only mode of transport – there are 492 airports.


A very small proportion of the land can sustain cash crops, including coffee and cocoa. Abundant rainforests provide the raw material for a logging industry, which is dominated by Malaysian-owned companies. Conservation groups have criticised the social and environmental impact of the activity. Kopra (coconut) oil is produced in all areas along the East coast.


Mineral deposits - including gold, copper and nickel - are extensive, but the difficult terrain and poor infrastructure make exploitation slow. There are significant reserves of oil and natural gas and the country has pinned its hopes on becoming a significant energy exporter.


After being ruled by three external powers since 1884, Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia in 1975. It remains a British Commonwealth realm.

People and Culture

The total population of almost 5.5 million are comprised mainly of people from the Melanesian race with more than a third of them in the rugged Highlands. Some 80% of Papua New Guinea's people live in rural areas with few or no facilities of modern life. Most people live on subsistence farming and fishing. Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world, and live within a non-monetarised economy dependent on subsistence agriculture. The concept of travel is unknown – people believe that you use a boat to go from A to B only.


Papua New Guinea has one of the highest incidences of HIV and AIDS in the Pacific region and it is on the rise. Some experts fear that Papua New Guinea is heading for a crisis similar to that in sub-Saharan Africa.


The traditional Melanesian cultures are kept alive in elaborate rituals that accompany deaths, feasts, marriages, compensation ceremonies and initiation rites. Variations in village construction, dialect and dress are common in country areas while annual Sing Sing shows, part of the Papua New Guinea Cultural Events Calendar, see villagers from around the country demonstrate their singing, dancing and elaborate bilas (traditional costumes). 


Parliament endorsed Peter O'Neill (former finance minister) as prime minister in August 2012, drawing the line under a prolonged political feud with his rival Sir Michael Somare. The dispute had left Papua New Guinea with parallel administrations as both men were declaring themselves the rightful prime minister ahead of national elections in June. Known as "The Chief", Sir Michael, the founding father of independent Papua New Guinea, accepted the defeat of his National Alliance Party in the poll and backed Mr O'Neill's bid to form a government. He said he would step down as party leader but remain an MP.


Mr O'Neill was elected by MPs in August 2011 after Sir Michael was ruled ineligible to be an MP owing to illness and absence from the house. But the Supreme Court ruled that Mr O'Neill's election was illegal and that Sir Michael should be reinstated. Parliament backed Mr O'Neill, defying the court. Mr O'Neill faced a further challenge to his authority in January 2012, when a group of soldiers demanding Sir Michael's reinstatement seized the military headquarters in Port Moresby.


Future Challenges v Traditional Culture

Land ownership

Wantokism & cultural history

Compensation and payback

Good governance with law and order

Corruption and Nepotism

Wider Western Economy

Languages spoken 820

Languages spoken per adult 3

Major language: English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu  

Indigenous counting systems More than 50 (one is based on joints of the body and the nose)

Major religions: Christianity, indigenous belief

Monetary unit: 1 kina = 100 toea

More than 800 local languages (in addition to many minor dialects) exist in Papua New Guinea – about a third of the world's indigenous tongues. Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is common to most Papua New Guineans and was formed originally as a trading language. It originates from the combination of English, German, Malay and Portugese. It consists of 1500 words, 22 letters of the alphabet (no C, Q, X or Z) and 5 vowels. Most villagers that we encountered could speak their local language, Tok Pisin and had a good command of the English language.


The PNG Constitution expresses the wish for “traditional villages and communities to remain as viable units of Papua New Guinean society”, and for active steps to be taken in their preservation. Laws exist in which a type of tenure called ‘customary land title’ is recognised. This customary land notionally covers about 97% of the usable land in the country. The remaining ‘alienated’ land is either held privately under State Lease or is government land. Freehold title can only be held by Papua New Guinea citizens.

Papua New Guinea has a warm to hot and humid climate throughout the year. Each province experiences a rainy season, in the summer months, which varies from province to province. The country is at its driest from May to December.


Radio is important in Papua New Guinea, which has scattered, isolated settlements and low levels of literacy.

The government operates a national network and provincial stations. News coverage is said to be balanced. But funding problems have taken some regional radios off the air. BBC World Service and Radio Australia broadcast on FM in the capital, Port Moresby.


Television coverage is limited mainly to Port Moresby and the provincial capitals.


Two daily newspapers are foreign-owned. The private press, including weeklies and monthlies, reports on corruption and other sensitive matters.


By June 2010 there were 125,000 internet users (InternetWorldStats) with an increasing blogging scene. Radio Australia says the platform gives locals a chance to vent their frustration with politicians, bureaucrats and the police. Social media - including blogs, Facebook and Twitter - emerged as platforms for debate during elections in 2012. One blogger observed that smartphone use was ironing out disparities in social media access between rural and urban voters.


Originally known as the Ilasdos Papios – Island of the fuzzy hair. In 1600 a map was published calling it Nova Guinea.


During WWII the Japanese occupied Rabaul in 1942, working their way south through the country to within 50km of Port Moresby. The battle for Milne Bay in September, 1942 was the first time in the Pacific war of 1941-45 that the Japanese were defeated on land. The first time also that the Australian Army and Airforce fought side by side and the first time the US troops fought in Papua New Guinea. The Bismark Sea, to the north of Papua New Guinea, was the site of the 1943 Battle of the Bismark Sea which was a major Japanese naval defeat during WWII in which planes of the US 5th Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force attacked a Japanese convoy carrying about 105,000 troops from China and Japan to Lae (PNG) resulting in heavy losses for the Japanese. It took until 1945 to regain all the mainland from the Japanese.


The separatist struggle in the neighbouring Indonesian province of Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, prompted the flight of thousands of Papuans into Papua New Guinea from the mid-1980s onwards. Many of them remain in border-area jungle camps.  The Papua New Guinean government has said it will not tolerate the use of its territory for separatist attacks on the Indonesian army.


Papua New Guinea had to deal with separatist forces of its own on the island of Bougainville in the 1990s. Up to 20,000 people were killed in the nine-year conflict which ended in 1997. A peace deal signed in 2001 provided the framework for the election in 2005 of an autonomous government for Bougainville.


Bourganville is part of the Solomon Islands and has a very rich copper mine. Australia gave Bourganville to the Papua New Guineans so they could use the funds from the mine to develop Papua New Guinea. However, the Bourganvillians wanted their own independence. In 1989 they closed the mine and in 1990 declared independence, which was not recognised. Papua New Guinea spent a lot of money fighting the civil war in Bourganiville and it divided the tribes for many years.


In 1996 the government of Sir Julius Chan hired mercenaries to try to crush the separatists. What became known as the Sandline Affair was a disaster, but ironically the fall-out brought world attention to the conflict and forced the protagonists to find peaceful solutions with the help of talks brokered by New Zealand and Australia. In 2002 the PNG Government provided autonomy arrangements with guarantees of a referendum for independence by 2020.

Papua New Guinea has strong ties with its southern neighbour, Australia, which administered the territory until independence in 1975. Canberra's substantial aid programme aims to relieve poverty and to boost development. Australia has also despatched police officers and civil servants to support their local equivalents.