Papua New Guinea: A Nation Lost in Time

It is always nice to travel to a new place. As part of our South PAcific trip, we spent 10 days in Papua New Guinea. But before we get into our adventures, here’s a little bit about the country.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is commonly called PNG. The very name elicits images of a world left behind: Remote and exotic clans, primitive cultures, cannibalism, headhunting, witchcraft, poverty, mystery and isolation from the modern world. And this image remains largely accurate, except for the cannibalism and the headhunting. While cannibalism was common, and widely publicized in the U.S. after Michael Rockefeller fell victim to the practice in the 1960s, the last known examples were in 2012. The last confirmed incident of headhunting was in 1998.

Many remnants of the past do remain. Village economy remains almost entirely subsistence (farming and fishing, depending on the region), believes and traditions have continued for millennia, thatch huts remain the most common form of abode in many villages, people continue to walk barefoot and field work is still done with rudimentary hand tools. The only signs of modernity in many villages are an occasional solar panel, a couple low-wattage light bulbs, and in rare cases, a village cell phone (in those areas that can get reception).


PNG’s Westernization

The land that is now PNG had been settled for about 60, 000 thousand years by prehistoric Indonesians. Some eventually went further, crossing a temporary land bridge that linked the island to Australia and then used PNG as a launching pad for colonizing Polynesia. Some lands have been formally cultivated over 9,000 years and pottery shards dating from 1,000 BC have been discovered.

Southeast Asians dispersed all around the island and developed very distinct cultures. The island was first “discovered” by the West in 1526, on a discovery tour by Portuguese explorer, Jorges de Meneses, and the coastal areas occasionally explored over the next couple hundred years, primarily by the Portuguese and Spanish, followed by the Dutch, Germans and British. By the mid-19th century, the Dutch had claimed most of the Western part of the island, the British the East and the Germans the Northeast.

Traders brought metal tools and clothes, sugar plantation owners both employed and exploited the natives, and missionaries converted them. And they brought guns that killed some and intimidated virtually all.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Australia assumed control of its original territory and then formally annexed the German territories after WW I. They expanded exploration of the mountainous interior until the beginning of WW II, during which Japan conquered the island as a staging ground for a planned invasion of Australia. The United Nations, however, gave Australia the mandate to administer the eastern half of the island as an U.N. Trust Territory after the era, when exploration of the highlands resumed.

In 1946, gold was discovered. Although Europeans had penetrated the inlands along the rivers (especially the Sepik), gold initially brought them intro the highlands. It is here that the Europeans found the natives most quiescent and had established some of the more mutually satisfactory (if, from a modern perspective, quite troubling) relationships. Although whites were generally perceived as being semi-divine through most of the island, this perception was particularly true in the mid-20th century when Europeans brought not only guns, but miraculous technologies such as planes and the disembodied voices of phonographs.

The Dutch retained control of the Western half of the island until 1963, when the U.N. granted ownership to Indonesia. The island, the second largest in the world after Greenland, is now divided in half: the Western half is now part of Indonesia; the Eastern half has been self-governed since 1973. It gained its independence in 1975 as the country of Papua New Guinea.

A QuasiCountry

Self-governance has been a mixed bag. Although PNG is technically a county, it is not what most Westerners would think of one. Given the large land mass (180,000 square miles) and small population (8 million), people are spread out. The numerous, huge mountain ranges, jungles and vast swamps, combined with extreme poverty, very limited communications and transportations, communities are isolating. So isolated in fact, that the country is even more divided by tribalism and by language as by physical conditions. For example, it has 22 official languages and more than 800 unofficial languages, some spoken by as few as a few dozen people. Different clans communicate via some combination of English, which is taught in schools, or some version of Motu or the de facto official language of Pidgin English. Tribal divisions are often based on linguistic differences and conflicts, often violent. Given this, there is virtually no perception of “national interest”.

All politics, therefore, are tribal, based largely on tribal and linguistic lines, with expectation of pork and patronage jobs as the primary incentive for votes. This results in tremendous political fragmentation. There are more than 40 formal political parties and many candidates run as independents. In the most recent election, for example, an average of over 30 candidates were running for each seat in Parliament. Political persuasion is more likely to take the form of bribes, and often machetes, axes and homemade guns, than of reasoned debate. And don’t forget sorcery. The count of the trouble-plagued 2017 election was temporarily postponed by charges of sorcery in one of the country’s provinces!

All, of this of course, makes the creation of meaningful, much less stable coalitions, virtually impossible.

Governance, which has been difficult in the best of times, has become more difficult. Over the last decade PNG’s economy which grew handsomely (more than 13 percent in 2014) on the back of the recent commodities boom (minerals, oil and especially natural gas) and the huge foreign investments it that brought, has reversed as prices have plummeted. While official numbers suggest growth of 2 percent in 2016, some economists expect that the economy actually declined. This has spawned a fiscal crises that the divided government is incapable of addressing. The country’s debt has been rising, it has defaulted on its United Nations dues and some government agencies have seen their electricity cut off due to unpaid bills. And to make things even more difficult, charges of illegal logging and rampant deforestation has prompted some companies to stop selling PNG wood and wood products.

Tradition and Violence

This is a country where polygamy is still common and brides are often still paid for in pigs (up to 300 pigs plus cash). Many village residents still rely on spirit doctors and many believe in witchcraft. In fact, hundreds of suspected witches are still murdered every year. This is despite (or possibly because) a national law that criminalized witchcraft, and allowed claims of witchcraft to be used as a defense in murder cases, was repealed in 2013—four whole years ago.

PNG is indeed isolated and for the most part, quite primitive. Although the country certainly has cities, only 13 percent of the population live in and around cities, or even towns. And most of these are in shantytowns on the city’s fringes. And with roughly 50 percent unemployment in the largest city and gainful employment extremely rare in the countryside, poverty is widespread and unrelenting.

So is crime. Burglary, robbery, rape and murder are all too common throughout the entire country. Even in Port Moresby, tourists are advised not to go out alone during the day, and not at all at night. And if it’s bad in the big city, it is supposed to be even worse in the Highlands where unemployment is virtually universal, poverty endemic and tribal feuds legion.

These feuds are typically initiated over one of the three things that PNG men value most highly—land, women and pigs. When one believes he has been a victim of a wrong, they can take one of two courses: Appeal to tribal chiefs to work out a settlement (usually in some combination of pigs and cash) or by violence. The second course is all too frequent. In fact, when talking to a Red Cross manager who happened to be staying in our lodge, we learned that the Highlands are currently home to 51 active tribal feuds and that the stakes in these feuds has gone up exponentially. While they used to be fought with clubs, knives, machetes and homemade, single-shot rifles, they are increasingly fought with machine guns and grenades. Just recently, for example, one combatant threw a grenade into a hut, killing the entire family.

Although we certainly wanted to learn (albeit not by personal experience) of this side of PNG, our primarily interest was to see what is left of the country’s natural beauty and to learn of its several, very different, centuries-old regional cultures. This was the backdrop of our long-awaited trip to Papua New Guinea, a guided trip (the only practical and safe means of travel) that is taking us:

  • Through the largest city and capital of Port Moresby;
  • Around the Southern Highlands and the traditional home and rich traditions of the Huli people;
  • Into the lowlands, swamps and remote fishing villages of the Sepic River Basin;
  • Up to the Mount Hagen Highlands with its ????; and especially
  • To the annual Goroka Cultural Show and Festival, the culmination of and primary justification for our trip.

PNG Economy

The PNG economy was initially based primarily on coffee (originally cultivated in the German sector) and copra (dried coconut meat from which oil is extracted). While gold was actively mined in the 19th-century, it required the massive mining equipment and open pit mines of the 20th century to drive gold, and especially copper mining to their current levels. While these industries were quite labor intensive, the next big investment boom, around LNG (liquid natural gas) extraction and pipelines, was not. While it generated huge investments and royalty payments, labor requirements, at least after the initial construction, are relatively small. This is especially true for the surfeit of unskilled labor that characterizes much of PNG’s labor market.

Thank goodness for tourism, which generates foreign exchange and significant number of moderately skilled and unskilled jobs in areas such as hospitality and transportation. Such tourism centers around activities such as bird watching (especially for the country’s iconic Birds of Paradise), diving (on its renowned coral reefs), ecotourism and culture, as with village tours and particularly, the country’s huge cultural festivals (including Mount Hagen and Goroka) which combined, probably draw well over a million visitors per year to the remote countryside.

These cultural tours certainly create large numbers of hospitality and transportation jobs, including some that are quite well paid. The benefits to the local population are debatable. The villages that are included in these tours are paid (albeit small amounts) for the shows they stage and have the opportunity to make much more from the sale of their crafts. It, however, does create few sustainable skills. Also, while it does help to preserve some aspects of a culture that is rapidly disappearing, it does so at the risk of caricaturizing it.


So that’s the background. Join on on our journey as we explore various areas of PNG.

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