Land of plenty: History, tradition and a diverse range of natural resources
Occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and hundreds of adjacent smaller islands, Papua New Guinea is an important exporter of metals ( particularly gold and copper) and agricultural products such as coffee and palm oil. The country is also set to become a major exporter of gas, which expected to significantly increase the size and strength of the economy. The primarily rural population is highly diversified, comprising thousands of distinct ethnic communities that together account for approximately one-tenth of the world’s known languages, and PNG remains heavily marked by the indigenous cultural traditions of its peoples. Geographically, the interior of PNG is mountainous, while the country’s tropical rainforest is famous for the diversity of its flora and fauna.
GEOGRAPHY: Whilst the eastern half of the island of New Guinea is the country’s mainland, PNG also includes three large islands (New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville), in addition to more than 600 small islands and archipelagos off New Guinea’s coast. It is located approximately 160 km north of the north-eastern tip of Australia, and several hundred kilometres south of the equator, with the Solomon Sea to the east and the Coral Sea to the south and south-east. The country has a geographical surface area of 462,840 sq km and a coastline of 5152 sq km, as well as an 820 km-long border with the Indonesian province of West Papua – formerly Irian Jaya – that makes up the western half of New Guinea. The capital, Port Moresby, is located on the south-eastern coast of the mainland, and as of 2009 was home to 314,000 people. The country’s population is largely rural, though other main towns include Lae, which has a population of around 200,000 and Mount Hagen, with about 40,000 people. PNG is geographically diverse, with terrain ranging from high interior mountains to jungle lowlands, in addition to tiny island archipelagos. Rainforest covers approximately 75% of the country. The highlands region is located in the north and is made up of five provinces, namely Enga and Simbu provinces, and the Southern, Western and Eastern Highlands provinces. The highest mountain in the country is Mount Wilhelm, which stands 4509 metres high. The country is located in the aptly named ring of fire, the Pacific rim’s belt of numerous active volcanoes. Among these are PNG’s Ulawun, Rabaul and Lamington. Earthquakes are relatively common and sometimes accompanied by tsunamis.
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: PNG is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Reflecting the country’s colonial past (it was long ruled by Australia), the British monarch remains the official head of state and is represented through a local governor elected by the parliament, though the role is largely ceremonial. A prime minister serves as head of the government, elected by the country’s 109-member unicameral parliament, which is itself elected by popular vote every five years. The most recent elections were held in June 2012.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT: The country is divided into 18 provinces, the autonomous region of Bougainville (made up of Bougainville Island and a number of other adjacent islands) and the National Capital District, where Port Moresby is located. Each province has an elected assembly and local government, headed by a provincial prime minister as well as a system of local governors. In addition, the country has around 160 elected councils at the local level of government.
POPULATION: As of July 2011 the country had an estimated population of 6.2m. The populace is fairly young, with a median age of just under 22 years, and is estimated to be growing at a rate of just under 2% a year. PNG remains a largely rural country, with only 13% of the population living in towns as of 2010. Moreover, Papua New Guinean society is extremely diverse, thanks in part to the long-standing isolation of many local communities in the hard-to-reach mountain areas of the country’s highlands region (and the Southern Highlands province in particular), where around 40% of the population lives. Some isolated communities did not have contact with the outside world until as late as the 1970s. Among the major ethnic groups are the Papuan, Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian peoples, however, the country is thought to host several thousand smaller ethnic communities whose members mostly number in the hundreds, giving rise to the local saying “for each village, a different culture”.
RELIGION: Christianity was introduced to PNG in the late 19th century by missionaries, and just under 97% of Papua New Guineans identified themselves as Christian in the national census in 2000. Yet the country is highly diverse in terms of denominational adherence and many Papua New Guineans combine elements of indigenous religions with Christianity. The largest Christian denomination is Roman Catholicism, to which 27% of the population subscribes, followed by Evangelical Lutheranism (20%), the United Church (12%) and Seventh-day Adventism (10%). All other denominations account for less than 10% of adherents. The country also still has a small number of followers of the region’s indigenous belief systems, and Islam, Baha’ism and other faiths are also practised. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and there is no state religion.
LANGUAGE: The country has three official languages, namely Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin English), a creole that is widely used as the lingua franca; English, which is the official language of business and government, and widely spoken in urban areas; and Hiri Motu, a trade language spoken mainly on the southern coast. In addition to these, more than 850 indigenous languages – or by some estimates more than 1000 – and amounting to around a tenth of all languages worldwide, are thought to be spoken in the country, many by communities of just a few hundred people.
CULTURE & HERITAGE: As an overwhelmingly Christian country, PNG observes Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, though traditional indigenous festivals are often celebrated more intensely. Communities often mark local holidays and special occasions with days-long feasts accompanied by music and dancing as well as the distribution of gifts such as pigs. Important non-religious national festivals include the Mount Hagen cultural festival, begun by missionaries in the 1950s, during which several dozen local tribes and communities congregate for competitions, music, agricultural fairs and displays of traditional dress, often involving elaborate body and face painting. Since 1995 the country has also hosted an annual mask festival focusing on the culture of mask-making that is found particularly in the Gulf Province, Momase and New Guinea Islands regions of the country.
Traditional food includes tropical fruits such as coconuts, mangos and a variety of bananas; vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams and breadfruit; and meat such as pork, fowl and turtle, as well as seafood in the country’s coastal regions.
CLIMATE: Climactic conditions are broadly tropical but vary widely by region. While much of the country receives frequent and heavy rainfall, conditions in Port Moresby more closely resemble those of northern Australia, being primarily dry during the year with a short rainy season. Given its proximity to the equator, annual temperatures in Port Moresby do not vary substantially.
Daily average lows remain steady at 23-24°C, while daily average highs vary between 28°C in July and 32°C in December and January. Humidity levels in the capital are high for most of the year, with a slight respite in July and August. Average rainfall levels vary between a low of 18 mm in August, which on average sees around two wet days, to 198 mm in February, with seven.
NATURAL RESOURCES: PNG is an important producer and exporter of metals and minerals. Total mineral exports in 2009, excluding crude oil, were worth approximately $2.8bn, amounting to around 62% of all exports. Mineral exports were overwhelmingly dominated by copper and gold, with gold exports alone amounting to just over $2bn in value in 2009, and copper exports standing at approximately $770m.
The country will host the world’s first offshore metals mining project, which is being developed to mine copper, gold and other metals at a depth of 1600 metres below sea level in the Bismarck Sea, to the north of the country. In 2009 the country had oil reserves of around 90m barrels, ranking it the 61st in the world, and proven gas reserves of roughly 230bn cu metres, the world’s 40th-largest. A $15.7bn, 6.6m-tonnes-perannum liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility is currently being constructed and is due to begin operations in 2014. The LNG plant will allow the country to begin gas exports that are expected to increase national export revenues three-fold. While minerals and hydrocarbons dominate exports, around 85% of the country’s population is employed in the agricultural sector, which comprises approximately one-third of total GDP.
The country’s primary agricultural exports are coffee, tea, cocoa, coconuts and palm oil. PNG ranked as the world’s 17th-largest producer of coffee in 2010, accounting for roughly 0.7% of global production. In addition, the country was the world’s seventh-largest producer and third-largest exporter of palm oil in 2008, with its 395,000 tonnes of foreign sales – accounting for 1.3% of global exports. Forestry is also a substantial sector, amounting to approximately 4% of GDP.