Home ARTICLES Beyond the horizon: PNG – a land of diversity

Beyond the horizon: PNG – a land of diversity

With a population of around 7.5 million and land area of 462,840 square kilometers, Papua New Guinea Undoubtedly, Papua New Guinea is world’s one of the most linguistically, culturally and socially diversified country. It has 852 native languages (representing 12 per cent of the world’s total) and 12 of which have no known living speakers! Most of the people of this very unique country live in customary communities, which are as diverse as its languages.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) occupies the eastern part of the world’s second largest island named, New Guinea, in a region of the south-western Pacific Ocean and north of Australia. The western half of New Guinea Island forms the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

The country is officially known as the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. It is one of the world’s least explored places, culturally and geographically. Many undiscovered species of plants and animals are believed to exist in the interior. There are groups of un-contacted people who live a life where minimum modern civic amenities are beyond anyone’s imagination. Nearly 40 per cent of the population lives a self-sustainable natural lifestyle with no access to global capital and resources. Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world, and live within a non-monetised economy dependent on agriculture.

It is classified as a developing economy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and as “world’s most unique nature lab” by environmentalists and nature lovers.

The history of Papua New Guinea is one of the oldest as archaeological evidence indicates that humans first arrived in the region around 42,000 to 45,000 years ago. Agriculture was developed in the highlands around 7000 BC, making it one of the few places of the world where domesticated plants were developed by the inhabitants. A major migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples to coastal regions took place around 500 BC. This has been correlated with the introduction of pottery and certain fishing techniques.

Although headhunting and cannibalism have been officially eradicated, in the past they were practised in many parts of Papua New Guinea. Many believe these rituals which were related to warfare and taking in enemy spirits or powers, are still in practice in the extreme remote interior. According to the writer Marianna Torgovnick, “The most fully documented instances of cannibalism as a social institution come from New Guinea, where head-hunting and ritual cannibalism survived, in certain isolated areas, into the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and still leave traces within certain social groups.”

Europe was almost unaware of the existence of New Guinea Island until the 19th century, although Portuguese and Spanish explorers had encountered it as early as the 16th century. Evidence shows that traders from Southeast Asia visited New Guinea 5,000 years ago.

The country’s dual name results from its complex administrative history before independence. The word Papua is derived from an old local term of uncertain origin. “New Guinea” (Nueva Guinea) was the name coined by the Spanish explorer Ortiz de Retez in 1545, as local people, he thought, resembled like the people of the Guinea coast in Africa.

In the nineteenth century, Germany ruled the northern half of the country as a colony for some decades, beginning in 1884, as German New Guinea. The southern half was colonised in the same year by the UK as British New Guinea. Later it transferred this territory to the newly-formed Commonwealth of Australia.

At the beginning of World War I, German New Guinea was captured by Australian forces and after the war, the League of Nations entrusted Australia to administer it as a mandated territory. During World War II, the New Guinea campaign (1942-1945) was one of the major military campaigns. Approximately 216,000 Japanese, Australian and American servicemen were killed. After World War II, the two territories were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, which later was simply referred to as “Papua New Guinea”.

The natives of Papua appealed to the United Nations for oversight and independence. They got independence from Australia on September 16, 1975 but maintain close ties. A secessionist revolt in 1975-76 in Bougainville Island resulted in a last-minute modification of the draft Constitution of Papua New Guinea to allow for Bougainville and the other eighteen districts to have quasi-federal status as provinces. A renewed uprising started in 1988 and claimed 20,000 lives until it was resolved in 1997. As part of the current peace settlement, a referendum on independence is planned to be held sometime before mid-2020.

Papua New Guinea is a member of Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II acting as its Sovereign and Head of State. She is represented by the Governor-General of PNG.

Papua New Guinea is often stated as one of worst places in the world for gender violence. A 2013 study found that 41 per cent of men reported having raped a non-partner while 14.1 per cent reported having committed gang rape. According to UNICEF, nearly half of reported rape victims are under 15 years of age and 13 per cent are under 7 years of age. Another report said that 50 per cent of those seeking medical help after rape are under 16, 25 per cent are under 12 and 10 per cent are under 8.

The separatist struggle in the neighbouring Indonesian province of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), prompted the flight of thousands of Papuans into PNG from the mid-1980s onwards which drew world media’s attention momentarily. Although there is strong public concern in Papua New Guinea over the treatment of indigenous people in the western part of the island, the PNG government is keen not to let the issue undermine its relations with Indonesia, and has said it will not tolerate the use of its territory for separatist attacks on the Indonesian army.

The country’s geography is diverse and some places are extremely rugged. The populous highlands region is mostly covered with tropical rainforest, and the long Papuan Peninsula. Dense rainforests can be found in the lowland and coastal areas. Its marine area includes untapped breath-taking coral reefs which are being preserved. The highest peak is Mount Wilhelm at 4,509 metres.

There are a number of active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. Earthquakes are common, sometimes accompanied by deadly tsunamis.

Due to the life-style and unawareness of safe-sex, PNG unfortunately has the highest incidence of HIV and AIDS in the Pacific region. It is the fourth country in the Asia Pacific region to fit the criteria for a generalizsd HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Ninety-six per cent citizens of the country identify themselves as Christians. Many combine their Christian faith with some traditional indigenous religious practices. Christianity in PNG is mainly made up of Protestants, with a notable Roman Catholic minority. There are also approximately 5,000 Muslims in the country. Traditional religions are often animist.

Transport in Papua New Guinea is heavily limited by the country’s mountainous terrain. As a result, air travel is the single-most important form of transport for human and high-value freight. In addition to two international airports, PNG has 578 airstrips, most of which are unpaved.

Port Moresby is the capital and largest city. It is located on the shores of the Gulf of Papua. The city has a population of about 400,000. According to a survey of world cities by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist, Port Moresby is one of the world’s least livable cities and ranks 139th among world’s 140 cities.

PNG is blessed with natural and mineral resources. Forestry, marine resources (a large portion of the world’s major tuna stocks) and agriculture (in some parts) are plentiful.

Agriculture provides livelihood for 85 per cent of the population and contributes some 30 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Coffee is one of the major export crops, followed by cocoa and coconut oil, tea and rubber. Interestingly, only some 3.0 per cent of the land of PNG is in private hands under 99-year state lease. In legal terms, lands are held by the State.

Mineral deposits, including gold, oil and copper, account for 72 per cent of export earnings of PNG. Oil palm production has grown steadily over recent years. Mineral deposits are extensive but the difficult terrain and poor infrastructure make exploitation slow. There are significant reserves of oil and natural gas and the government has an ambitious plan to transform PNG into an energy-exporting country.

Due to the rapid fall of energy and mineral prices globally, Papua New Guinea’s economy in 2015 has been shrinking alarmingly. Alongside spending cuts of up to 20 per cent in some areas, a $1.0bn sovereign bond planned for 2016 should help the government address the public debt which stands at 34.7 per cent of GDP. The move is also expected to help shore up the country’s foreign reserves, which have fallen by 50 per cent in the past two years.

Despite having significant endowments of gold, oil, gas, copper and silver plus fisheries and fertile land, Papua New Guinea’s prospects for long-term economic development are constrained by an inefficient legal system and corruption that undercut the rule of law. Private-sector development is also held back by regulatory deficiencies and the lack of institutionalised open-market policies.

The writer is CEO & Chief Consultant, Best Sourcing Business Advisory Services.  mehdi.mahbub@bestsourcing.biz