Papua New Guinea, situated on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia, is a fairly unassuming country. It is simultaneously one of the least urbanized countries in the world — only 13 percent of the population lives in cities — and one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Humans migrated to New Guinea around 40,000 years ago. These small communities settled on the island, but because of its distance from other countries from others they developed things such as agriculture on their own. Today the vast majority of the country’s population continues to live in small, secluded communities that rely on subsistence farming and lack access to most modern amenities. This situation has led Papua New Guinea to become one of the most heterogeneous countries in the world. There are thousands of cultures and ethnic groups, sometimes with as few as a hundred members. Most of these groups speak their own language, meaning that there are between 800 and 900 distinct languages on the island; around 12 percent of the world’s languages come from this country, which has a landmass slightly larger than Japan. The official languages are Tok Pisin, English, and Hiri Motu. Hiri Motu and English are spoken natively by only around two percent of the population, but Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, is the most widely used language, spoken by almost 56 percent of the population as a second language. The areas inhabited by these groups, which are frequently in contention with one another, are essentially outside of the rule of the government itself. A nine-year revolt on the island of Bougainville led to the death of 20,000 people; peace agreements were signed in 2001.
When the Spanish and Portuguese first encountered the area that would become PNG, the people still relied on stone tools, but no prolonged contact was made until the late 19th century. Germany set up a colony around this time on the northern half of what is today PNG, while the British established the southern half a protectorate administered by Australia. The Germans were interested in coconut production, but the Australians remained detached rulers until Japan invaded the island during World War II.
Ties with Australia have remained close after independence in 1975. Australia funnels large amounts of aid and investment into the island, but tensions frequently arise due to actions such as Australia’s attempts to insert Australian police and bureaucrats into the PNG government.
Today the economy of the country, which is heavily reliant on natural resources, is one of the fastest growing in the world. Oil palm, coconut and cacao are the largest agricultural exports, but while these endeavors and subsistence farming are the livelihood of 80 percent of people, 70 percent of the GDP comes from gold, oil and copper. Oil and mining are driving the expansion of the economy, but a lack of infrastructure and general lawlessness are impeding exploitation. More importantly, many are wondering what development means and who it is for in a country as diverse and rural as PNG.
Sam Ball is deputy opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]