A Million Different Journeys
The Land That Time Forgot
For outsiders, Papua New Guinea is one of the most mysterious countries in the world. It is home to a staggering number of languages and cultures. Shielded by virtually impenetrable rain forests, there remain people who have lived lives of almost complete isolation in remote valleys and forests in New Guinea’s central mountain ranges.
To this day, much of the highlands remain difficult to access by any other than the most dedicated explorers. Birds and animals also thrive in this isolation: a large number of Papua New Guinea’s mammals and birds cannot be found anywhere else in the world, while several others are restricted to Papua and Australia.
Even the underwater world of the Papuan islands seems otherworldly. The region straddles several tectonic plates edged by continental shelves with sudden drop-offs into the deep-sea abyss; coral reef-crowned volcanos erupt from the seas as emerald-green islands.
Papua New Guinea’s inaccessibility and seclusion are said to have kept marine and land environments closer to a paradisiacal state than elsewhere. Rainforests are more lush, reefs are healthier. A customary system of tenure (known as tambu) has been traditionally used by many communities to temporarily close fishing areas and allow them to recover, leading to sustainable fishing practices. This approach is, however, sadly on the decline, as modern day lifestyles no longer follow traditional practices. The remoteness and seclusion of the region has also meant that limited research has taken place, and there are many marine and coastal areas as yet unexplored and un-documented.
Papua New Guinea: Facts and Figures
  • Papua New Guinea (PNG) occupies the south-eastern half of the island of New Guinea and approximately 600 smaller islands.
  • New Guinea is the world’s second-largest island in the world after Greenland.
  • Papua New Guinea is the worlds’ linguistically and culturally most diverse country.
  • Papua New Guinea has a population of slightly over 7 million people, speaking almost 850 languages. Most of these languages have less than 1,000 speakers; 12 are considered to be extinct, since there are no known remaining living speakers.
  • Only 18 per cent of PNG’s population lives in urban areas, while the majority depend primarily on the natural world for their sustenance and livelihoods.
Economy and Environment
  • The PNG economy relies heavily on natural resource exports. Economic sectors that rely on mining and resources have led to strong growth, making the country the sixth-fastest growing economies in the early 2010s.
  • Despite the country’s natural riches, PNG is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita.
  • More than 70 per cent of the country’s exports come from mining. PNG also relies heavily on development aid.
  • Foreign investors dominate the most productive market sectors: minerals, fishing, and timber. While these sectors boost the country’s economy, they are devastating to its environment. Timber production alone leads to deforestation at a rate of 1 percent of forest each year. Destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing have a similar negative impact on the marine environment, particularly on coral reefs.
  • 97 percent of the lands in PNG are owned by communities and believed to be inheritances from mystical ancestors.
  • Three of the world’s most active volcanoes are in Papua New Guinea. Manam volcano on Manam island last erupted in 2004, when all of the island’s 9,000 inhabitants were evacuated and resettled on the mainland.
  • Due to the high mountain ranges in the country’s interior, Papua New Guinea is one of the few countries in the world that is close to the equator and has snow.
  • Other than Australia, Papua New Guinea is the only country in the world with marsupial mammals such as tree-kangaroos.
  • Papua New Guinea has 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, even though it only covers 1 percent of Earth’s total land area. It has more than 20,000 plant species, 800 species of coral, 600 species of fish, and 750 species of birds. Since the country is less explored and exploited than other regions, it still retains much of its diversity. Biodiversity protections are explicitly enshrined in PNG law.
  • Many PNG birds and mammals have close genetic links to Australian species.
  • A number of customary practices delineate communities’ interaction with the seas for social, marine management, and religious reasons.
History and Culture
  • New research into mitochondrial genetics shows that the first settlers may have arrived in PNG as early as 60,000 years ago.
  • Pre-historic agriculture was practiced in the Wahgi Valley Kuk Swamp around 9,000 years ago, one of the earliest agricultural sites discovered in the world.
  • Even though Southeast Asian traders visited the country beginning 5,000 years ago, PNG was first mentioned in written documents in the 16th century, after the arrival of European navigators.
  • Papua New Guinea has one World Heritage site, the Kuk Early Agricultural Site, bearing witness to some of the oldest agricultural practices in the world. A further 7 sites are inscribed in the tentative World Heritage lists. The Milne Bay Seascape, one of the proposed sites, includes 5 largely uninhabited coral atolls and islands with coral reef systems.
Despite its abundance of diversity and history of protection, this natural sanctuary is increasingly exposed to threats that have wreaked destruction elsewhere. The twin forces of poverty and mineral resources are set to change Papua New Guinea’s pristine landscape forever. Poor land management practices are leading to sedimentation of coral reefs; overfishing and destructive fishing is leading to dwindling fisheries stocks; and losses of marine predators (such as sharks and tuna) hunted for international markets, is adversely affecting the ecology of the area.
What can you do?
Help us to protect Papua New Guinea’s unique marine environment
Coral Triangle Center