It is estimated that Papua New Guinea contains more than 5 per cent of the world’s total biodiversity, in less than 1 per cent of its land area. The country is also one of the world centres of diversification of traditional root and tuber crops, leafy vegetables, fruits and nuts, cooking bananas, underutilised food crops, sugarcane, medicinal plants, ornamental trees and timber trees. These are a rich and valuable resource that must be appropriately utilised and conserved for future generations.
While this diversity is still largely intact, genetic erosion is taking place at an alarming rate in some places, mainly caused by urbanisation and increased lumbering, mining and agriculture activities. Mining and logging operations are changing the lifestyle of villages to that of a cash economy, and the indigenous diversity of crops is gradually being lost. The underutilised food crops and medicinal plant resources are disappearing as the older generations who are the users of these germplasms die, while the younger generations move to urban centres and mining sites. Valuable indigenous knowledge about the use of these plant varieties is vanishing with the older generation.
Papua New Guinea has approximately 38 million hectares of forest, spreading over 60 per cent of the country’s land mass, of which more than 97 per cent is customarily owned by the indigenous inhabitants. These forest habitats contain the country’s valuable forest tree resources. Indigenous timber tree species include the Araucaria spp., Agathis spp., Eucalyptus spp., Acasia spp. and some exotic species such as Tectona grandis, Gmelina arborea and Ochroma lagopus.
There are more than 600 medicinal plants reportedly used in Papua New Guinea. Almost all these plants grow wild in their natural habitats and are collected by villagers whenever medical needs arise. The forest habitats of the country, particularly the rainforest areas, are rich storehouses for nearly 3,000 exotic orchid species, as many as 15,000 species of wild flowers and many species of ornamental shrubs, ferns, palms, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other organisms.
The production of staple food crops remains the most important agricultural activity for 85 per cent of the rural population. Subsistence farmers and local communities in Papua New Guinea follow complex farming systems. The main crops in the farming system are sweet potatoes, taro, yams, cassava, bananas and traditional leafy vegetables.