Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Melanesian (over 800 languages), Tok Pisin (Pidgin), Motu English
Main religions: Christianity 95.6 per cent (among them, Roman Catholic 26.0 per cent, Evangelical Lutheran 18.4 per cent, Seventh Day Adventist 12.9 per cent, Pentecostals 10.4 per cent, United Church 10.3 per cent), animism.
The indigenous population is almost entirely Melanesian, though there are small Polynesian outlying communities north of Bougainville. There are significant ethnic distinctions between population groups in different parts of the country. The country is unusually fragmented, by terrain, history, culture and language. About 840 distinct languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, around a quarter of the world’s stock, reflecting enormous regional and local cultural divisions. There are small numbers of Asian and European migrants and their descendants, some of whom are long-established.
The overwhelming majority of the population is Christian, although traditional beliefs remain very strong and reports of religious discrimination are rare. Baha’is form the second-largest religious group, with local leaders claiming up to 40,000 followers. There are a few thousand Muslims, including increasing numbers of converts.
Ethnic Chinese have been present in Papua New Guinea since the nineteenth century, but migrant numbers have grown rapidly over the past decade. They are now estimated to comprise around 20,000 people, or 0.3 per cent of the population. Some have set up small goods shops and fast food outlets, which make them a highly visible presence in New Guinean towns.
Updated February 2018.
Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse in the world, with thousands of separate communities and an estimated 800 languages spoken in the country. Many communities continue to live on subsistence agriculture in the isolated mountainous interior, although the presence of natural resources such as forests and mineral reserves in some indigenous areas has resulted in land grabbing, environmental devastation and other abuses. Its highly diverse population means that there is no single dominant ethnic or linguistic group, although outside their own communities indigenous New Guineans can become marginalized. A strong tradition of land ownership and widespread poverty mean that migrants from rural areas frequently end up in squatter settlements on the fringes of large towns. These are popularly regarded as encouraging crime and disease, and are regularly bulldozed by police.
Geologically, Papua New Guinea contains many natural resources, including copper, gold, oil and natural gas. The government hopes that greater exploitation of the mineral wealth of the country will provide an opportunity to increase wealth and result in significant social and economic change. For example, the PNG LNG (Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas) Project operated by ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso Highlands, is the country’s largest gas development project and is predicted to double Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product. Yet the case of the PNG LNG Project highlights the tensions generated by many such development projects in Papua New Guinea. For example, the land upon which the project is taking place is registered as state land and has been leased by the government of Papua New Guinea to Esso Highlands. Construction began in 2010; the first gas shipment took place in 2014. Recent reports from the area have highlighted growing frustrations and intensifying inter-clan violence amidst environmental degradation, continued poverty and arms proliferation, with few tangible benefits for local communities since the project completed. A key issue is the infusion of cash via payments to affected clans, with the money often not being properly distributed; the money is invariably paid to men and fuels the growing number of weapons.
There are fears that the increasing tensions between indigenous local communities and the company could lead to civil unrest in the region. Other large-scale mining projects in Papua New Guinea are also being contested by local communities. Communities at Krumbukari in Madang Province are opposed to the development of the Ramu nickel mine. Arguably one of the richest nickel deposits in the southern hemisphere, the project, which is being run by a company jointly owned by the Chinese state company China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and the Australian-based Highlands Pacific, will result in the dumping of over 100 million tonnes of slurry waste at sea – a practice banned in both China and Australia.
Besides environmental degradation and disasters, human rights violations against local communities also continue to occur around mining sites. In early 2015, for instance, 14 people, including 11 indigenous women and girls who were raped or violently molested at the Porgera Mine in the Papua New Guinea highlands, reached an out-of-court settlement with the world’s biggest gold mining company, Barrick Gold. Apart from these victims, at least 120 women have lodged claims of rape at the mine. The Barrick Porgera mine continues to be the subject of ongoing tension, particularly regarding the severe environmental impact and human rights abuses associated with mining.
Environmental concerns also continue to plague the peoples of Papua New Guinea. A satellite analysis conducted by scientists at the University of Papua New Guinea and Australian National University shows that the country has been losing about 1,400 square miles of rain forest, or about 1.4 per cent of its total forest cover, each year, with estimates indicating that 83 per cent of the country’s accessible forest – and 53 per cent of its total forested area – will be gone or severely damaged by 2021. Deforestation affects local communities in myriad ways, among them their abilities to maintain their traditional ways of life, including hunter-gathering practices and cultural activities.
Although Papua New Guinea is the least urbanized of the Pacific Island countries, with less than 13 per cent of the population living in urban areas, this figure is somewhat deceptive due to the country’s large landmass. Papua New Guinea in fact has the largest urban population in the Pacific, while Port Moresby is the region’s most sizeable city. This has also led to significant challenges, with some estimates suggesting that close to half of the city’s population live in slums. Similar issues have affected other urban areas in the country, such as the coastal city of Lae, where an influx of migrants from rural areas in Mamose, the New Guinea islands and the Highlands Region has dramatically increased the size of its informal settlements. Though the government, through its National Urbanization Policy (NUP), has committed to improving infrastructure, services and urban management, serious problems persist.
Another major challenge in urban areas of Papua New Guinea is violence. Urban conflict has increased as cities have become more ethnically diverse, with tribal fighting – a frequent issue between different ethnic groups in the country – now normalized in major urban centres. Furthermore, Port Moresby is also plagued by so-called ‘rascalism’. This phenomenon, centring around youth gangs defined along community and cultural lines, has reinforced ethnic division in the capital. The decline of traditional conflict resolution systems, such as village courts, has meant that some communities have become more dependent on ‘wantok’ for protection. Wantok – literally meaning ‘one talk’, someone who speaks the same language – previously served in part as a social support system among rural communities, but in Port Moresby and other urban areas it is frequently adapted to support identity-based criminal gangs, in the process deepening urban divisions. A particularly high-profile case of ethnic violence occurred in January 2011, when an argument between two men from different highland provinces led to an outbreak of fighting between factions of their communities that killed five people. Women are especially vulnerable in Port Moresby, as the city has high levels of sexual assault, domestic violence and rape
The country’s small community of ethnic Chinese, mostly resident in urban areas, have also been targeted on occasions due to their perceived affluence. Unrest overtook more than half a dozen of Papua New Guinea’s major towns in May 2009, after a dispute between local and Chinese migrant workers at a nickel refinery site near the northern town of Madang led tens of thousands of New Guineans to take to the streets in a wave of anti-Chinese protests and riots. Diplomats reported that nine Chinese-run businesses had been looted, while three rioters were shot dead and one trampled to death in the turmoil. Many indigenous New Guineans believe these businesses undercut locally owned rivals and claim that their owners have obtained work permits fraudulently. A number of ethnic Chinese have been killed over the past decade by indigenous employees alone, including four Chinese nationals stabbed to death in Port Moresby in June 2013.
Sporadic violence between clans in rural areas also persists, particularly in Enga and Eastern Highlands provinces. Such tit-for-tat violence has historically been common in the New Guinea highlands, although political rivalries and the relatively recent introduction of guns are thought to have worsened the situation over the past few decades. Inter-clan sexual violence is also a common trigger for such feuds, and UNICEF has reported that Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual violence. Traditional practices that relegate women ‘to the status of chattel’, according to UNICEF, contribute to rape going under-reported.
The Australian government’s offshore refugee detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island has received considerable international criticism regarding persistent reports of abuse and neglect. In April 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the continued detention of asylum-seekers violated the country’s Constitution. At the end of 2016, the Australian government and the US administration under then President Barack Obama agreed a transfer deal whereby the US would accept up to 1,250 of Australia’s refugees on Manus Island and at the other centre in Nauru, and in return Australia would receive Central American refugees being held in Costa Rica. The agreement immediately drew the strong criticism of the US’s new President, Donald Trump, who said that it would only receive the Australian detainees after ‘extreme vetting’. Regardless of US implementation, Australia has stated that it seeks to close the detention centre on Manus Island by 31 October 2017; however, the Papua New Guinea government has responded that it cannot leave the detainees behind.
Updated February 2018.
Papua New Guinea consists of the eastern half of the mountainous island of New Guinea, plus more than 50 populated islands, extending eastwards to the island of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands chain. Most islands are of volcanic origin, and active volcanic activity is common, alongside natural hazards ranging from frost and floods to droughts.
Melanesians were established in New Guinea at least 40,000 years ago. European traders and missionaries visited and worked in coastal regions of New Guinea from the late 1800s, but colonialism is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon which did not occur until after the 1940s in much of the densely populated highlands. It was only in the post-war years that some remote areas were contacted, and modern education, health services and money reached the bulk of the population. Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia in 1975, against the wishes of many highlanders who feared coastal, especially Papuan, domination of the political economy. That never eventuated.
At the time of independence Papua New Guinea had a primarily agricultural economy, though a major copper and gold mine had begun production in the island of Bougainville in 1972. Since then other major copper and gold mines and natural gas and oil fields have been opened, and mining dominates the export economy.
In the 1970s a small number of coastal ethnically based sub-regional groups exerted some localized political power in bids to obtain a greater share of national economic development. The Mataungan Association sought greater indigenous (‘Tolai‘) control of political and economic development in East New Britain, following concern over the extent of land alienation. The Association opposed the establishment of a multiracial Local Government Council, claiming that the council was a device to enable Europeans to control Tolai land and affairs.
Regional dissent was also strong in central Papua, whose identity was a colonial creation. In the core areas of Papua, around Port Moresby, grievances had built up over the direction of development. Although the capital city was in Papua, much post-war economic development was in resource-rich New Guinea, and many Papuans felt they were neglected. The movement largely originated in fear and distrust of highlanders and concern over their potential influence. In 1971 a group of Papuans in the House of Assembly formed a pressure group known as Papuan Action, and used the threat of secession to press for economic development in Papua. The Papua Besena secessionists made a unilateral and symbolic declaration of independence for Papua in early 1975; from then onwards the movement lost support as the quest for secession died. In the postcolonial era there has often been regional dissent but little of this has crystallized into desires for secession, other than in the particular case of Bougainville, and more intermittently in some of the island provinces.
At both national and provincial levels, there are few places where there has never been a threat of secession. Demands from the island provinces have always been more substantial. In 1994 the four island provinces (other than the North Solomons) prepared their own Constitution for a five-province Federated Melanesian Republic, in their demand for greater autonomy and in opposition to proposals to reduce the power of provincial governments, but the bid faded in 1995. The most significant outcome of regional dissent around the time of independence was the establishment of a provincial government system in 1978, based on that first introduced in Bougainville, and designed to give greater autonomy to the provinces and so weaken secessionist tendencies. However, by the end of the 1980s provincial government had become costly and inefficient. In 1995 the provincial government system was removed, despite enormous opposition, especially in the islands, and some concern that this would result in an increase in secessionist aspirations. That has not occurred.
The movement of Bougainville towards a distinct autonomy would seem to offer a precedent for other parts of the country but such aspirations have yet to recur.
From the 1980s several thousand refugees have crossed into Papua New Guinea from the Indonesian province of West Papua. Some were supporters of independence for then Irian Jaya from Indonesia, but others were fleeing reprisals by the Indonesian army. Although some refugees have been repatriated more than 5,000 remain in Papua New Guinea. The Papua New Guinea government has recently taken steps to ease their situation. In 2014, the usual US$3,100 fee was set aside for West Papuans seeking Papua New Guinea citizenship; in April 2017, about 150 refugees received their new citizenship papers.
Because of the extreme fragmentation of Melanesian society, Papua New Guinea has not generally been faced with long-term ethnic unrest – except in Bougainville – but rather faces civil unrest, crime and violence as a result of social changes and other factors. Although there have been elements of national unity, including the rapid growth of the principal lingua franca, Tok Pisin, the sense of national unity and purpose has been overshadowed by the pervasiveness of localism and regionalism. Ethnic and cultural identities in Papua New Guinea are not relics of traditional times, but contributing elements to powerful local nationalist struggles that may develop further. Only in Bougainville has geography combined with ethnicity, culture and colonial heritage to effectively challenge the state.
Papua New Guinea has a single parliament of 111 seats. There are many political parties that are based around leaders rather than policies and the political landscape remains fragmented among numerous political parties. No party has ever held the majority of parliamentary seats. As a result, all governments have been usually unstable coalitions frequently beset by votes of no confidence, despite contemporary legislation restricting this. Following the country’s 2017 elections, 21 separate parties and more than a dozen independents held seats in parliament. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill returned for a second term; his People’s National Congress Party won 27 seats, and his coalition depends on the support of all the independents.
Papua New Guinea’s application for Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) candidate status was approved in 2014. This was an important move for a country endowed with abundant natural resources, yet in which the UNDP estimates that 40 per cent of the population are living on less than US$1.25 a day. It is hoped that the initiative will improve relations between communities and development projects, as well as ensure that profits are transparently directed back to the country and its peoples.
Most of the population remains engaged in agriculture and cultivation of cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and copra. Since independence, mining has become highly important. There have been tensions, strikes, violence and closures at mine sites over environmental degradation and access to employment, compensation payments and business opportunities. Timber exports have also been substantial and also resulted in tensions at particular sites for similar reasons and over non-sustainable exploitation. Urbanization is limited and the ‘resource curse’ has constrained a more balanced structure of development. Crime, corruption and insecurity remain endemic problems in the country.
Following a visit to Papua New Guinea in March 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women reported at the 2013 session of the UN Human Rights Council that violence against women in the country was ‘widespread, pervasive and often tolerated’, with incidents occurring at every level of society. Importantly, in a unanimous 65–0 vote, the Papua New Guinean government passed the Family Protection Act in September 2013. This was an important milestone for the country in tackling the endemic problem of domestic violence, though it remains to be seen how well it is implemented.
Nevertheless, women remain excluded from political participation at all levels. While three women were elected to parliament in the 2012 elections, all of them lost their seats in the 2017 elections, meaning that despite a record number of female candidates running – 167, compared to 3,000 male candidates – not a single woman is now represented in Papua New Guinea’s parliament.
Updated February 2018.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in