Introduction to PNG

Last updated: June 2020


Population, Location, Geography, and Climate

Papua New Guinea has a population of more than 8.25 million according to the 2018 census. The country has major 5 ethnic groups; they are categorized as Melanesian, Papuan, Negrito, Micronesian and Polynesian. Melanesian also referred as Papuans is the biggest ethnic group in Papua New Guinea and is divided into two ethnic groups; Papuans and Austronesians. Since Papuans and Austronesians have a different culture, geography, language, they are referred to as separate groups. Furthermore, Christianity is the dominant religion in Papua New Guinea. Around 96.4% of the country’s population are Christians. In detail, 27% of the population refer to themselves as a Roman Catholic, and 69.4% are refer themselves as Protestant, according to the 2000s census. 0.3% of the remaining population belong to Baha’i religion, and the rest remaining percentage belong to indigenous beliefs.

Papua New Guinea has three official spoken languages. Those are Tok Pisin, English and Hiri Motu. Most of the population speaks Tok Pisin language; only 1–2% English, and less than 2% of the population speak Hiri Motu. Despite that, Papua New Guinea has 836 indigenous languages spoken which is about 12% of
the world’s total, and most languages have fewer than 1000 speakers.

Papua New Guinea consists of eastern New Guinea along with New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, and six hundred small islands and archipelagos. The land area is over 462,840 km², with the mainland accounting for 80%. The western half of the island is the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. To the south is Australia, and to the east and southeast are the Solomon Islands and other Melanesian countries. To the north and northwest are the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. The rest of the country is made up of about 600 small islands, the chief of which are the Bismarck Archipelago, the Trobriands, the Louisiade Archipelago, the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, and some of the islands in the Solomons group, including Bougainville. The country comprises 22 provinces including the National Capital District (greater Port Moresby) and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

The centre of the main island is a rugged mountainous ridge, with several wide valleys, and foothills north and south. The rivers Sepik and Ramu drain the foothills to the north, and the rivers Fly, Kikori and Purari those in the south. Though fast-flowing, many rivers are navigable. There are active volcanoes along the north coast, and some volcanoes and warm pools in the south-east islands. Furthermore, over 75% of the nation is covered in rain forest. Swamp forest is found in the poorly drained lowlands, and sago palm is a staple food of the people living there. Around Port Moresby and in drier areas to the west are grassy plains and savanna woodlands.

Papua New Guinea has a tropical monsoon climate and is generally hot and humid, although the climate varies from one area to another. Tropical monsoon type, hot and humid all year, though somewhat cooler in the highlands. Rainfall is chiefly from December to March. High mountains receive occasional frost, even snow.

Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia in 1975 and is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Many government functions are devolved to the country’s 22 provinces and to lower levels. The country is divided into four regions – Highlands, Momase, New Guinea Islands and Southern. The capital is Port Moresby, with a population of about 400,000. The main regional centres are Goroka and Mt. Hagen in the densely populated Highlands Region, the commercial port of Lae in the Momase region, and Kokopo/Rabaul in the New Guinea Islands region (United Nations Devlopment Programme, 2014).

The regions and provinces of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is a lower- to middle-income country with a GDP of US$15.4 billion and a per capita income of US$2,104.9 (World Bank, 2013). It has a formal, corporate sector and a large informal sector where subsistence farming accounts for the bulk of economic activity. The formal sector provides a narrow employment base, consisting of mineral production, some manufacturing, the public sector, and services including finance, construction, transportation and utilities. It is estimated that 75 per cent of households depend on subsistence agriculture, with 40 per cent of the population living on less than $1 a day (United Nations Development Programme, 2014).


Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived in New Guinea approximately 50,000 years ago. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the arrival of the first European explorers and in 1828 the Dutch took control of the western half of the island of New Guinea. In the 1880s, the eastern half of the island was divided between Germany (north) and the UK (south), with the British later ceding the territory to Australia (1903). After World War I, the German territory was mandated to Australia as a Trust Territory.

During World War II, the country saw fighting between Japanese and Allied forces. Following the war, the northern and southern territories were joined together to become one, known as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

Preparations for independence began in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, Michael Somare became Chief Minister of a democratically elected government and in 1973 the country was administratively unified and renamed Papua New Guinea. Independence came to the nation on September 16, 1975. PNG is a member of the Commonwealth and the country recognizes the British Sovereign as Head of State.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw civil war on the island of Bougainville. The secessionist revolt, which ended in 1997, claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. After lengthy negotiations, Bougainville and Papua New Guinea agreed in 2001 that the province of Bougainville would become an autonomous region. Under the Peace Accords (2001), provision is made for a referendum on independence which could be held sometime between 2015 and 2020.

National general elections are held every five years. The last general elections, conducted in July 2012, brought Peter O’Neill to power as Prime Minister and Head of Government.

More about history: A Brief History of Papua New Guinea

Political overview

The eastern half of the island of New Guinea was divided between Germany (north) and the UK (south) in 1885. The latter area was transferred to Australia in 1902, which occupied the northern portion during World War I and continued to administer the combined areas until its independence and ratification of a constitution in 1975. A nine-year secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville ended in 1997 after claiming 20,000 lives. Since 2001, Bougainville has experienced autonomy. Under the terms of a peace accord, 2015 is the year that a five-year window opens for a referendum on the question of independence.

Papua New Guinea is parliamentary democracy (National Parliament) under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm. Similar to other Commonwealth Nations, Papua New Guinea’s monarch stands as a ceremonial figurehead, while the governor-general represents the Monarch of the United Kingdom by acting upon the advice of the prime minister and the cabinet. The Governor-General is appointed by the monarch, and the governor-general appoints the prime minister.

Supreme Court hears appeals and reviews decisions made by the National Court. Chief justice appointed by the governor-general upon the advice of the National Executive Council after consultation with the National Justice Administration Minister. The Judicial and Legal Services Commission appoints the remaining judges. Citizen judges have 10-year terms while non-citizens have 3-year terms.

Constitution states that the legislative power of the people is vested in the National Parliament, and a member of the legislative powers are elected every 5 years through an alternative voting system.

Government structure

Papua New Guinea has three levels of government – national, provincial and local. The National Parliament is a 111 member unicameral legislature elected for five-year terms by universal suffrage. The Prime Minister is appointed and dismissed by the Governor-General on the proposal of Parliament. The Cabinet – known as the National Executive Council (NEC) – is appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Supreme Court, National Court, and local and village courts form an independent justice system.

Political system

Members of the National Parliament are elected from 89 single-member electorates and 22 regional electorates. The regional electorates correspond to Papua New Guinea’s 20 provinces, plus the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the National Capital District. Members from regional electorates also serve as provincial Governors. Each province has its own provincial assembly and administration.

Up to and including the June 2002 general election, members of parliament were elected on a first-past-the-post basis and, due to the large number of candidates, they frequently won with less than 15 per cent of the vote. After the 2002 election a system of limited preferential voting was introduced, under which voters are required to list a first, second, and third preference.

To date, all governments have been coalitions. Historically, there has been a high turn-over of parliamentarians at general elections. In 2002, for example, around 80 per cent of sitting members lost their seats. In the 2012 elections, the figure was almost 60 per cent, with 45 incumbents re-elected.

The PNG Constitution protects new Governments from Parliamentary motions of no-confidence during the first 18 months of a five-year term. Once the 18-month moratorium expires, a successful no-confidence motion may result in a new Prime Minister forming a government without the need for a national election. If the no-confidence motion occurs during the last twelve months of a five-year term, a national election must be held. Changes in government following motions of no-confidence have been a characteristic of PNG politics since independence.

International Relations

Papua New Guinea’s foreign policy reflects its close ties with Australia and other allies. It is by far the largest Pacific Island nation and has traditionally viewed itself as part of the Pacific. In recent years, Papua New Guinea has also been cultivating relations with Asian nations. Its views on international political and economic issues are generally moderate. Papua New Guinea has diplomatic relations with 56 countries such as Australia, United Kingdom, China, United States of America, Australia, Cuba, Fiji, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, and others. Papua New Guinea has good relationship with most of the Commonwealth Nations since the country itself is part of it.

Papua New Guinea belongs to a variety of regional organizations, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the South Pacific Commission, the Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Program (SPREP).

Papua New Guinea is an observer member of the ASEAN and unlike Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea has not applied to become a member of the association. Since the country has very good economy and joining the ASEAN will be beneficial for the country.


Macroeconomic Overview

Papua New Guinea’s population of 8.25 million is young and growing. The country is rich with a vast endowment of natural resources and geographic proximity to rapidly growing Asian markets. Its population is strikingly diverse, speaking over 800 distinct languages.

Economically, PNG’s economy remains dominated by two sectors which are agricultural, forestry, and fishing sector, which engages most of the labor force, and the minerals and energy extraction sector which accounts for the majority of export earnings and Gross Domestic Product.

Investment is needed to diversify Papua New Guinea’s asset base and increase employment, and to strengthen capacity in institutions, human capital, and physical infrastructure. Electricity, telecommunications, roads, and other transport infrastructure remain critical to enabling private sector-led growth.

Obtaining more revenue from the mineral and petroleum sector by discontinuing the practice of providing significant tax concessions to companies operating in this sector will improve both the fiscal balance and the foreign exchange position in PNG. Further, translating revenues from strong, tangible improvements to living standards for all Papua New Guineans remains the key challenge for the Government of PNG, yet other challenges are also immense. It is inherent to improve public financial management and efficiency of public spending to convert resource revenues into inclusive growth and, consequently, a genuine improvement in the livelihoods.

Though the country is rich in mineral, agricultural, forestry and fisheries resources, development is still in the early stages, and has been hampered by volatile prices for agricultural and mineral exports. In addition, ocean or inhospitable terrain separates the main population centers. GDP grew by 1.9% p.a. 1980–90 and 3.8% p.a. 1990–2000.

Government policy has been to aim for steady, sustainable growth with an even sharing of the benefits throughout the country. To this end, it took minority shareholdings in most major industrial and mining developments (up to a maximum of 30% in mineral projects and 22.5% in petroleum projects).

GDP growth was uneven during the 1990s, registering 15% in 1993 as new mining investment came on stream, but falling to −3.6% in 1995, −3.9% in 1997 and −3.8% in 1998. By 1998 the country was in the most serious financial crisis since independence due to a prolonged drought, the continuing Bougainville crisis, the Asian economic downturn, and the falling value of the kina. With the support of the World Bank and IMF, the government embarked on economic reforms including a program of privatization.

The economy recovered strongly during 1999 but then stalled, with good growth returning from 2003, as new mining and hydrocarbon projects came on stream, recording 4.9% p.a. over 2005–09. There was strong growth in 2007–08, moderating slightly to 5.5% in 2009, in response to the global downturn and the collapse of world demand, before strengthening again to eight to nine% p.a. in 2010–12, slowing in 2013–14 before surging to a 12% in 2014, driven by exports of natural gas. Revenues from natural resource exploitation have resulted in high government spending and a construction boom. Yet, as the country suffers from endemic corruption and lacks a functioning legal system, inequality has been increasing. In
2018 the GDP growth rate was 0.5%.

Investment Area

Papua New Guinea’s enormous and largely untapped natural resources offer excellent investment opportunities. Coupled with the Government’s positive attitude to foreign investment through the granting of incentives and concessions, and the recognition of the private sector’s important contribution to the economic growth, it is clear why many international companies have invested in Papua New

The Government places a high priority on the development of mining and petroleum projects even though this sector is relatively well-developed. There are huge opportunities for investors to establish businesses to provide support for the growing number of such large-scale projects.

Some of the priority economic sectors offering investment projects with good potential for investors include:

  • Agriculture—production and processing.
  • Fisheries.
  • Forestry.
  • Manufacturing.
  • Tourism—large and small ventures.

Some of the specific projects offering good potential for investors (on a joint venture basis) include poultry farming and processing; processing of spices; coffee production and export; seafood processing and export; food production to replace imported goods; tanneries; timber management/production and export; building materials and furniture production; rubber production; garment and footwear production; the manufacture of a wide range of basic necessities such as processed food, paper and wood products, metal and glass products; printing services; and contractual cleaning services.

Currently, most of the market requirements in Papua New Guinea are satisfied by imports. As the economy expands in concert with the large resource projects, so does the number of opportunities.

Poor road conditions mean that for many people in Papua New Guinea, travel by road can be impossible, unsafe, or simply far too expensive. Without reliable access to roads, people cannot reach schools, hospitals or markets when they need to. Now more than 700 km of national roads have been already restored. Forty-six national and provincial bridges have been rehabilitated, maintained, and replaced and an estimated 1.3 million people have benefitted.

The Productive Partnership in Agriculture Project is Papua New Guinea’s largest agriculture program. Launched in 2010, the project aims to improve the livelihoods of smallholder cocoa and coffee producers. More than 23,000 smallholder coffee and cocoa farmers have benefited from various activities supported under this project, with the number of farms adopting improved farming practices now estimated at more than 3600. And with additional funding of US$30 million, the project will be expanded into other areas of Papua New Guinea, increasing its support to women farmers.

In Port Moresby, the Urban Youth Employment Project is providing thousands of young Papua New Guineans with life skills and short-term employment opportunities. The project has been extended to 2018 with additional funding support of US$10.8 million from the Australian government. An estimated 15,000 young Papua New Guineans are set to benefit from the expansion of short-term employment and training program.

In the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a World Bank project is supporting inclusive development and strengthening women’s participation in development. Through the Inclusive Development in Post-Conflict Bougainville project, training has been delivered to 450 participants, and small grants have been awarded to 41 women’s groups, including at least one project in each of Bougainville’s 13 districts. It is estimated that over 48,000 people have benefitted from completed grant projects, representing nearly 25% of the Bougainville population.

All these projects have been funded by FDI meaning that foreign direct investment is required to improve the country’s economy and overall living conditions.

The country is richly endowed with mineral and hydrocarbon resources. Since commercial gold-mining began in 1989, mining and oil and gas production has made a significant contribution to GDP. Oil production started in 1992. There are two oil refineries: one in the Gulf of Papua, and one at Port Moresby. A liquefied natural gas project linking fields in the Southern Highlands and Western Province with an LNG plant at Port Moresby began production and exports in 2014. Reserves of natural gas were estimated in January 2014 to be 200 billion cubic meters.

The principal copper mine at Ok Tedi in Western Province was developed and operated by an Australian company and then abandoned. Another important mine on the island of Bougainville closed in 1989 at the outbreak of political instability and after political resolution in Bougainville, rehabilitation needed huge investment. There are substantial reserves of nickel/cobalt at Ramu in Madang Province. Nickel and cobalt exports—from the new plant at Ramu—started in November 2012 and the plant was due to be producing at full capacity by 2016.

Domestic Market

Growth in Papua New Guinea continues to face headwinds from weaknesses in global prices for its export commodities and unfavorable weather caused by El Niño in 2015. Agriculture is expected to rebound to production levels achieved immediately before El Niño, but sustained growth in the sector is constrained by inadequate infrastructure and a weak business environment.

The top Trade partners of Papua New Guinea are Australia, Singapore, and Japan. The country’s top exported goods are Precious Stones and Metals, Ores, and Fats and Oils.

Agriculture employs country’s 85% of the population and contributes only 23% to the Papua New Guinea’s GDP. The remaining 15% of Papua New Guinea’s labor force employed in industry and services sector, however, industries contributed 37% to the country’s GDP, and services contributed 40% to the Papua New Guinea’s GDPs.

Papua New Guinea is richly endowed with natural resources, but exploitation has been hampered by rugged terrain, land tenure issues, and the high cost of developing infrastructure. The economy has a small formal sector, focused mainly on the export of those natural resources, and an informal sector, employing most of the population. Agriculture provides a subsistence livelihood for 85% of the people. The global financial crisis had little impact because of continued foreign demand for PNG’s commodities.

Mineral deposits, including copper, gold, and oil, account for nearly two-thirds of export earnings. Natural gas reserves amount to an estimated 155 billion cubic meters. A consortium led by a major American oil company is constructing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) production facility that began exporting in April 2014. As the largest investment project in the country’s history, it has the potential to double GDP in the near-term and triple Papua New Guinea’s export revenue. An American-owned firm also opened PNG’s first oil refinery in 2004 and is building a second LNG production facility. The government faces the challenge of ensuring transparency and accountability for revenues flowing from this and other large LNG projects. In 2011 and 2012, the National Parliament passed legislation that created an offshore Sovereign Wealth Fund to manage government surpluses from mineral, oil, and natural gas projects. In recent years, the government has opened up markets in telecommunications and air transport, making both more affordable to the people.

Numerous challenges still face the government of Papua New Guinea including, providing physical security for foreign investors, regaining investor confidence, restoring integrity to state institutions, promoting economic efficiency by privatizing moribund state institutions, and maintaining good relations with Australia; its former colonial ruler. Other socio-cultural challenges could upend the economy including chronic law and order and land tenure issues.


The population of Papua New Guinea has reached 7,275,324 according to 2011 Census. It has increased by 40% and at average annual growth rate 3.1% since the last census in 2000. In absolute numbers a total of 2,084,538 persons were added to the population during 11 years.

About 39% of the population live in the Highlands region followed by Momase region with 26% while Southern and Island regions make up 20% and 15% respectively.

The annual growth for the Papua New Guinea has increased steadily from 2.2 % in 1980 and currently stands at 3.1%. The Highlands and Island regions have annual growth higher than the national average.

Sex ratio ( number of males to every 100 females) has remained steady at 108 as reported in the last census. Likewise, the household size is 5.3 persons, a slight increase from 5.2 reported in 2000 census.

Of the 22 provinces, Morobe province alone contains almost 9.3% of the country’s total population, reporting a total population count of 674, 810 person in 2011 Census. Eastern Highlands and the Southern Highlands (minus Hela province) are the other two most populated provinces with population in excess of half a million.

Significant increase in population is noted mostly for provinces in the Highlands and Islands. However this is not the case for the provinces in Momase region where population growth rate is comparatively lower.

Since 1980, the population of Papua New Guinea has more than doubled from 3 million to 7.3 million in a matter of 31 years.

The population of PNG remains primarily based in rural areas and operates in a traditional, non-monetary barter economy. However, there is also a portion of the population that live in cities such as Port Moresby, Lae, Madang and Goroka.

Co-existing with the traditional communities is a modern economic system, involving mining, the production and exportation of petroleum products and other industries such as agriculture and fisheries.


The island of New Guinea, of which Papua New Guinea is the eastern part, is only one-ninth as big as Australia, yet it has just as many mammal species, and more kinds of birds and frogs. PNG is Australia’s biological mirror-world. Both places share a common history going back tens of millions of years, but Australia is flat and has dried out, while PNG is wet and has become mountainous. As a result, Australian kangaroos bound across the plains, while in PNG they climb in the rainforest canopy.

PNG – A Megadiverse Region

PNG is one of earth’s megadiverse regions, and it owes much of its diversity to its topography. The mountainous terrain has spawned diversity in two ways: isolated mountain ranges are often home to unique fauna and flora found nowhere else, while within any one mountain range you will find different species as you go higher. In the lowlands are jungles whose trees are not that different from those of Southeast Asia. Yet the animals are often startlingly different – cassowaries instead of tapirs, and marsupial cuscus instead of monkeys.

The greatest diversity of animal life occurs at around 1500m above sea level. The ancestors of many of the marsupials found in these forests were derived from Australia some five million years ago. As Australia dried out they vanished from that continent, but they continued to thrive and evolve in New Guinea, producing a highly distinctive fauna. Birds of paradise and bowerbirds also abound there, and the forest has many trees typical of the forests of ancient Gondwana. As you go higher the forests get mossier and the air colder. By the time you have reached 3000m above sea level the forests are stunted and wreathed in epiphytes. It’s a formation known as elfin woodland, and in it one finds many bright honeyeaters, native rodents and some unique relics of prehistory, such as the giant long-beaked echidna. Above the elfin woodland the trees drop out, and a wonderland of alpine grassland and herbfield dominates, where wallabies and tiny birds, like the alpine robin, can often be seen. It is a place where snow can fall and where early morning ice coats the puddles.

Flying into Port Moresby you’ll encounter grassland – a far cry from the eternally wet forests that beckon from the distant ranges. Such habitats exist in a band of highly seasonal rainfall that exists across southern New Guinea, and the fauna you’ll see there is much like that of northern Australia. Magpie geese, brolgas and jabirus occupy the floodplains, as do sandy-coloured agile wallabies, Rusa deer (which were introduced a century ago) and saltwater crocodiles.

Where the dry season is shorter, however, the savannah gives way to lowland jungles and there you are in another world. The largest native land animal you’ll encounter is not a mammal or a reptile, but a bird – New Guinea’s southern cassowary.

It’s the nature of rainforests that their inhabitants form intimate relationships, and the cassowary stands at the centre of an intricate web. It eats the fruit of rainforest trees, and it can fit objects as large as a grapefruit down its throat. Its stomach strips the pulp from the fruit but passes the seeds unharmed, and from them new forest trees can grow – unless a sinister-looking parrot is nearby. The vulturine parrot is a cockatoo-sized bird with the colours of an Edwardian gentleman’s morning suit – a sombre black on the outside, but with rich vermilion linings. Its head is naked and bears a long, hooked beak, hence its common name. Until recently no one knew quite why its head was so odd – then one was seen neck-deep in cassowary faeces. The bird specialises, it seems, in picking apart reeking cassowary droppings in search of the seeds, and for such an occupation a bald head (which prevents the faeces from sticking) and a long pincer-like beak are essential requirements.

New Guinea’s snake fauna includes some extremely venomous species, such as the taipan and king brown snake, which are limited to the savannahs. Generally speaking the higher up the mountains you go, the fewer venomous snakes there are.

Mountain Forests

The forests of New Guinea’s mountains, including its high-mountain elfin woodland, are, on first acquaintance, more sedate places. There is often a distinct chill in the air at dawn, and out of the mist you might hear the pure tones of the New Guinea whipbird, or the harsher calls of any one of a dozen birds of paradise. Just why New Guinea is home to such an astonishing variety of spectacular birds has long puzzled biologists. Part of the answer lies in the lack of mammalian predators on the island. The largest – a marsupial known as the New Guinea quoll – is only kitten-sized. Thus there are no foxes, leopards or similar creatures to prey on the birds, which as a consequence have developed such astonishing colours and spectacular mating rituals as to beggar belief.

If you can get well away from the villages, perhaps by accompanying experienced bushmen on a two- or three-day walk to distant hunting grounds, you might get to see a tree kangaroo. These creatures are relatives of Australia’s rock wallabies which, five million years ago, took to the treetops. There are eight species in New Guinea, but in the central ranges you are likely to see just two. Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is a chestnut-coloured creature the size of a Labrador. Higher up you may encounter the bearlike Doria’s tree kangaroo. It is shaggy, brown and immensely powerful, and lives in family groups.

Where the woodland gives way to the alpine regions another world unfolds. There the tiger parrot calls from stunted umbrella plants. Rhododendron bushes and tufted orchids are covered with flowers, and any woody plants are festooned with ant plants. In a perfect example of the intimate ecological relationships that abound in the forest, the ant protects the plant, while the plant provides shelter for its tiny defenders.
You’ll see well-worn tracks winding through the alpine tussocks. Some are made by diminutive wallabies, others by giant rats. New Guinea is home to a spectacular diversity of rats, which comprise fully one-third of the mammal fauna. These distant relatives of the laboratory rat are spectacularly varied: some look like miniature otters and cavort in mountain streams, others resemble small, tree-climbing possums, while still others look, and smell, like rats from elsewhere.

In two of the highest mountain regions in PNG – the Star Mountains in the far west and Mt Albert Edward near Port Moresby – one of the country’s most enigmatic birds can be seen. Known as McGregor’s bird of paradise, it is a velvet-black bird the size of a large crow that makes a distinctive rattling sound as it flies. Under each wing is a large orange spot, and behind each eye a fleshy, flapping orange wattle of skin.

The People of PNG


PNG people are closely related to people from other parts of the Pacific. There are Papuans, the first arrivals; Melanesians, who represent 95% of people and are related to people from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia; Polynesians, related to New Zealand Maoris, Tongans, Samoans and Hawaiian islanders; and Micronesians, related to people in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru.

Only 15% of people live in urban areas, while most of the rest are subsistence farmers. Nearly two million people live in the Highlands, the most densely populated part of the country.

Most cities have many people who weren’t born there. Many Highlanders migrate to Port Moresby and elsewhere, but few coastal people move into the Highlands. Melanesian people still identify more strongly with their clan links and their origins than with the people they come to live with, so enclaves exist in the settlement areas of the big cities, and there is a traditional distrust between Highlanders and coastal people.


Some people have typical urban lifestyles with cars and comfortable homes. Others inhabit remote areas and may never have seen a town or a white person. Urban or rural, they almost all chew buai (betel nut), go to church, worship dead ancestors and fear masalais (malevolent spirits).

Melanesians are laid-back, at least on the coast where it’s too hot to get overly fussed. Highlanders are a bit more feisty and passionate. Everyone seems to walk slowly, but they’ve got this climate worked out – cling to the shade, sleep through the midday heat and save physical exertion for village rugby late in the day.

By Western standards most people live very simply. In the bush people have very few possessions and often no cash income. In the cities a number of educated people lead sophisticated middle-class lives, but other people live in squalor in city-fringe settlements. PNG lifestyles range from the rarefied cold-weather climes of the Highlands to life on the coast in stilt houses above the shifting tide.

Both PNG and the Solomons are changing quickly and locals want development. Particularly in PNG, people have married outside their traditional clans and homelands, and tok ples (local language, pronounced ‘talk place’) is increasingly being replaced in the villages with Tok Pisin (the Pidgin language). Isolated communities are suddenly being confronted with huge mining and logging operations. These bring new roads and facilities and remote areas are opened to Western influences – both good and bad.


Fundamental to Melanesian culture is the idea of wantoks (meaning ‘one talk’ in Tok Pisin) and your wantoks are those who speak your tok ples (language) – your clan or kinfolk. Every Melanesian is born with duties to their wantoks but they also have privileges. Within the clan and village, each person can expect to be housed and fed, and to share in the community’s assets.

Some say that the wantok system is the best and worst thing about PNG and the Solomon Islands. For villagers, it is an egalitarian way for the community to share its spoils. In rapidly changing circumstances, the village and the clan provide basic economic support as well as a sense of belonging.

When these ideas are transposed to politics and social affairs, it becomes nepotism and, at worst, corruption. Candidates don’t get to run without the support of their fellow bigmen (important men or leaders), who expect that when ‘their’ candidate is elected, their generosity will be repaid. The wantok system is also the greatest disincentive to enterprise.

The wantok system is a microcosm of the battle being waged between the modern and the traditional in PNG and the Solomons. It is so deeply entrenched that some educated youngsters choose to move away from their families to avoid the calls for handouts. And without it, life would be much harder for many others. Just saying ‘no’ to a wantok is rarely an option.

Traditional Lifestyle

Ownership in the Western sense didn’t exist in traditional societies; instead ownership was a concept tied up in family and clan rights, controlled by the male elder.

In traditional Melanesian culture there are three main areas of everyday importance – prestige, pigs and gardening. A village chief shows wealth by owning and displaying certain traditional valuables, or by hosting lavish feasts where dozens of pigs are slaughtered. Bigmen (important men or leaders) don’t inherit their titles, although being the son of a chief has advantages. Bigmen must earn their titles by accolades in war, wisdom in councils, magic-practice skills and the secret arts that are tambu (taboo) for women. Particularly in the Highlands, people have to be made aware how wealthy bigmen are, so ceremonial life in this region focuses on ostentatious displays and in giving things away. There are various ways in which this is formalised; it’s part of a wide circle of exchange and interclan relationships. Wealth is never really given away in the Western sense. Your gifts cement a relationship with the receiver, who then has obligations to you. Obligation and payback are deadly serious in Highlands culture; Melanesia has no privileged classes, but individuals still inherit land through their parents (often their mother). Village life in PNG and the Solomons is usually egalitarian, and ownership continues to be a concept tied up in family and clan rights.

Pigs are extremely valuable; they’re regarded as family members and lactating women sometimes suckle piglets. People can be seen taking their pig for a walk on a leash, patiently waiting as the pig grazes and digs by the roadside. Large pigs can be worth K1000. Dogs, on the other hand, are mangy, fly-blown creatures left to scavenge for food.

Animism, Christianity & Spirit Houses

People in both countries still maintain animist beliefs. Despite the inroads of Christianity, ancestor worship is still important. The netherworld is also inhabited by spirits, both protective and malevolent, and there are creation myths that involve animal totems. This is stronger in certain areas: islanders from Malaita in the Solomons worship sharks while some Sepik River people revere crocodiles. Christianity has a tight grip on most people, but it hasn’t supplanted traditional beliefs. They coexist – Jesus is alive in people’s hearts and minds without conflicting with their traditional ideas.

Men’s cults are widespread throughout Melanesia and involve the ritualised practice of ‘the arts’ and ancestor worship in men’s houses and haus tambarans (spirit houses). This can involve the building and display of certain ceremonial objects, song and dance, and the initiation of boys into manhood. It manifests in different ways in different societies, but it is very secretive and deadly serious – in the Sepik boys are cut with crocodile markings as part of their initiation, while Tolais boys are visited by dukduks (spiritual costumes) to perform their initiation rites. It’s ironic and hard to fathom for outsiders, but while men’s business and haus tambarans are tambu for women, men’s cults and their initiation rites are all about rebirthing – the haus tambaran is like a womb and in some places its entrance is actually shaped like a vagina.

Sexual politics is complicated in traditional Melanesian society. In some places in the Highlands husband and wife don’t live together at all, and sexual relations are not to be taken lightly. Some Melanesian men have two or more wives. In many belief systems women are considered dangerous, especially during menstruation. Women often live in a house alone with the young children, or with sisters and their nieces and nephews. In many places land rights pass through the mother, and older women can wield great power in the villages.

Women carry kago (cargo) in bilums (string bags) home from the market while the man walks unburdened. Women do most of the food gardening, although men grow magnificent decorative gardens. Traditionally, men practise arts that are exclusively their domain and, although these can sometimes be shown to women travellers, they are still tambu for local women.


PNG’s arts are regarded as the most striking and varied in the Pacific, and Solomon Islanders, being great carvers, are part of the same cultural tradition. The lack of contact between different villages and groups of people has led to a potent array of indigenous art.

In traditional societies, dance, song, music, sculpture and body adornment were related to ceremonies. Art was either utilitarian (such as bowls or canoes) or religious. Since European contact, art has become objectified. There have always been master carvers and mask-makers, but their role in traditional cultures was to enable the ceremonies and rituals to be performed correctly, and to serve the clan and chief.

The production of artefacts is itself often ceremonial and ritualistic. On some of the islands, secret men’s societies build dukduks or carve malangan masks (totemic figures honouring the dead). Women are forbidden to look upon a dukduk or malangan until it is brought to life in a ceremony by a fierce anonymous character.


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