Papua New Guinea, at least for the things I end up reading, always seems to wind up on the strangest of lists. There have been several times when I’ve come across this country on lists of weird, bad, or dangerous things. Or really remote one-of-a-kind kind of lists, which aren’t quite as bad. I’m really hoping there’s more to this country than the scary human rights issues I’ve read about and poisonous animals. So, my mission is to find out what things are really like here and what kind of secrets I don’t know about yet.
The name of the country as we know it didn’t come about until the 19th century. The first part, Papua, is derived from the Malay term that refers to the frizzy hair of the people, especially anyone who’s from the Melanesian Islands. The second part, New Guinea, was named by the Spanish since they thought the people reminded them of the Africans they met in and around the country of Guinea.
The country occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which is located just north of Australia and is part of the broader Melanesian Islands. The western half consists of the Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua. Its easternmost island, Bougainville Island, is essentially on the northwestern end of the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Sea separates the main island of New Guinea from the Solomon Islands to the east while the Bismarck Sea lies to the north in the midst of the Bismarck Archipelago. If you go even farther north, you’ll run into Palau, Guam, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Because the country is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it has several active volcanoes and experiences frequent earthquakes (sometimes leading to tsunamis). There are several rivers, highland areas, and rainforest areas while coral reefs surround the islands. Deforestation remains to be a problem for the country. Papua New Guinea lies just below the equator and is one of the few equatorial countries to also have snow (in the higher elevations).
The first people arrived in Papua New Guinea as a result of one of the first human migrations in the world. Africans arrived in the islands somewhere around 45,000 years ago, and they developed agriculture in the highlands. Another wave of migration took place around 500 BC from various other tribes around the Southeast Pacific Islands. Portuguese and Spanish traders arrived during the 16-18th centuries and introduced several vegetables, including the sweet potato, which significantly enhanced their agriculture. Many of them were after the plumes of the bird of paradise. The southern half of the island was handled by the UK and called British New Guinea. In 1905, the British handed that control over to Australia who renamed it Territory of Papua, but technically, on the books, it was still a possession of the UK. During the end of the 1800s, Germany controlled the northern side of the island, calling it German New Guinea; however, Australia captured and controlled it during WWI. During WWII, the Japanese, Australians, and the US fought a major battle where almost a quarter-million people died. After WWII, the two sides were united and referred to as Papua New Guinea. They gained their independence from Australia in 1975, although they do remain part of the British Commonwealth. In 1988, miners in Bougainville created an uprising concerning the fact that they were bearing the brunt of the down side to mining (illnesses, environmental issues), yet they weren’t compensated with a fair share of the profits in this. Even today, there has been some discussion as to Bougainville’s autonomy.
Port Moresby is located along the southern coast on the Papuan Peninsula. The city is named after British Naval Officer John Moresby, the first European to site the area where the future capital city would be. With only around 400,000 people, it’s also the country’s largest city. There are a couple of international schools, several sports stadiums, museums, libraries, shopping and markets, as well as its usual business district and high-rise apartments. While many of these features used to be in the downtown district, quite a few of them moved to suburbs and other neighborhoods during the 1990s.
The islands are rife with natural resources, both on the land and in the sea. However, there is also a lot of rough terrain, which makes it very difficult to access. Minerals (like gold, copper, and oil) make up nearly three-quarters of its export revenue. Palm oil is one of their major agricultural exports, even though the palm oil industry has increasingly become quite controversial over the past few years. (Watch this VICE video from Season 3 about the palm oil industry in Indonesia. I would suggest watching the entire episode, but you can skip ahead to the 16:00 mark for the story on palm oil.) Although PNG’s economy has struggled in the past, it has also made some growth over the past decade. They not only rely on mining, but they also have a growing oil and gas industry as well.
Christianity is overwhelmingly the majority religion in Papua New Guinea. Nearly 95% of the population adheres to some form of Christianity, with the majority of those following Protestantism. As far as the significantly smaller non-Christian population goes, the Baha’i religion has the largest following, followed by Islam and Confucianism. Animism and mysticism is still very much alive, especially in the rural areas. Several high-profile cases have made news in the past few years of women being tortured and burned alive on charges of witchcraft.
What’s unbelievable is that this relatively small country has more than 820 languages, but most of these languages have fewer than 1000 speakers, and several have already died out. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Enga, followed by two other Trans-New Guinea languages, Melpa and Huli. However, it is the #1 country in the world with the most languages. (Indonesia is second with 742, and Nigeria is third with 516.) There are actually four official languages in the country: Hiri Motu (a simplified form of the Motu language), Tok Pisin (an English-based creole; once used as a trade pidgin, it is entirely its own language now and serves as a first language for many), English (language of government and education but not spoken by many people in everyday activities), and Papua New Guinea sign language.
Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most remote areas. Not necessarily its physical location, but its accessibility to traverse the country. Because of its rough terrain, thick jungles, and swamps, there are areas few people have ever visited (save, perhaps, for some of the locals). In fact, it’s nearly impossible to build roads through some of these areas, and it’s easier to fly to where you need to be. I wonder what secrets lay in the jungles. Could the next cure for cancer lie within its green realm, or is its tight-knit foliage saving itself from exploitation?
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