Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Papua New Guinea

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Papua New Guinea, 2007, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


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.


Main languages: Melanesian (over 800 languages), Tok Pisin, Motu, English

Main religions: animism, Christianity (various)

The indigenous population is almost entirely Melanesian, though there are Polynesian outliers 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, some of whom are long-established settlers. In a very real sense the country is a nation of minorities.

More than three-quarters of the population live in rural areas and the capital city, Port Moresby, has nearly 290,000 people (World Gazetteer, 2006). Urban unemployment, crime and expanding squatter settlements typify the problems of urban growth.


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 quaint 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 109 seats. There are many political parties that are based around leaders rather than policies. The largest party gained only 18 per cent of the votes at the 2002 election, hence all governments have been usually unstable coalitions frequently beset by votes of no confidence, despite contemporary legislation restricting this.

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 is a great problem and corruption and the breakdown of law and order in 2004 led to Australia embarking on the controversial Enhancement Cooperation Program (ECP) to support key institutions such as the judiciary and police force through the deployment of Australian civil servants and police (though a court challenge over the constitutionality of immunity provisions stymied the proposed deployment of 200 Australian police officers).



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