Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (păp´ōōə, –yōōə, gĬn´ē), officially Independent State of Papua New Guinea, independent Commonwealth nation (2015 est. pop. 6,672,000), 183,540 sq mi (475,369 sq km), SW Pacific. It encompasses the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, as well as the Bismarck Archipelago, the Trobriand Islands, Samarai Island, Woodlark Island, D'Entrecasteaux Islands, the Louisiade Archipelago, and the northernmost Solomon Islands of Buka and Bougainville (which form an autonomous region). The capital is Port Moresby; other important cities include Rabaul, Lae, Madang, Mt. Hagen, and Goroka.

Land and People

Papua New Guinea is a wild, rugged region, with limited communications. The climate is tropical, and the largely mountainous country is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The highest point is Mt. Wilhelm (14,793 ft/4,509 m), in the Bismarck Mts. in central Papua New Guinea. The native population is largely Melanesian and Papuan but is divided into many distinct cultures. Some 800 different languages are spoken in the country. Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is the lingua franca, and it and the much less widely spoken English and Hiri Motu (a Malayo-Polynesian language that was a lingua franca in the southeast) are official languages. About two thirds of the population is Christian, with Roman Catholics and Lutherans the largest churches; the rest follow traditional beliefs.


Subsistence agriculture supports most of the population; sweet potatoes constitute the main food crop. Agricultural exports (notably palm oil, coffee, cocoa, coconut products, rubber, and tea) are increasing, but mineral and oil deposits account for the majority of export earnings. Copper, gold, and silver are mined, and oil and natural gas are produced. Timber is another import source of revenue, but logging, largely by foreign companies, is often done without regard for laws designed to promote sustainable yields from the country's rain forests. Pearl-shell and tortoise fisheries dot the coast, and crayfish and prawns are exported. Most industry involves the processing of agricultural and wood products; there is also petroleum refining, construction, and some tourism. Machinery and transportation equipment, manufactured goods, food, fuels, and chemicals are imported. Australia is by far the largest trading partner, followed by Singapore and Japan.


Papua New Guinea is a parliamentary democracy governed under the constitution of 1975 as amended. The monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the head of state and is represented by the governor-general. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the governor-general. The unicameral National Parliament consists of 109 members who are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 20 provinces, the autonomous region of Bougainville, and the National Capital District.


Papua, the southern section of the country, was annexed by Queensland in 1883 and the following year became a British protectorate called British New Guinea. It passed to Australia in 1905 as the Territory of Papua. The northern section of the country formed part of German New Guinea from 1884 to 1914 and was called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. Occupied by Australian forces during World War I, it was mandated to Australia by the League of Nations in 1920 and became known as the Territory of New Guinea. Australian rule was reconfirmed by the United Nations in 1947.

In 1949 the territories of Papua and New Guinea were merged administratively, but they remained constitutionally distinct. They were combined in 1973 as the self-governing country of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Full independence was gained in 1975. In the late 1980s a violent secessionist movement broke out on Bougainville. A cease-fire, monitored by Australian troops, went into effect in 1998, and a peace accord that granted the island broad autonomy was signed three years later.

Proposed cuts in defense forces as result of economic reforms demanded by Australia and international organizations sparked a weeklong mutiny in 2001; the government rescinded the cuts and promised to review the mutineers' concerns over foreign economic influences. Sir Michael Somare, of the National Alliance party, became prime minister in 2002. In 2004, Australian police officers were deployed in PNG as part of an aid package designed to help end gang violence and restore law and order in the country, but after the supreme court ruled the following year that the officers' immunity from prosecution and other aspects of the deployment were unconstitutional Australia withdrew the contingent.

In late 2006 PNG's government and its relations with Australia were roiled by the Moti affair. Julian Moti, an Australian lawyer of Fijian descent had been appointed attorney general in the Solomon Islands, was wanted in Australia on child sex charges, and Australia sought Moti's extradition from PNG, where Moti was arrested (Sept., 2006) while in transit. Moti managed to flee with apparent help from PNG officials. An investigation into the incident implicated the prime minister in Moti's flight from PNG, a charge Somare denied; Somare subsequently disbanded the board of inquiry, which issued its report to Somare in Mar., 2007. Elections in June–July, 2007, returned Somare to office, leading a reorganized coalition. The defense minister rejected the board of inquiry report in Oct., 2007, on the grounds that the board had not been legally constituted.

Somare's government subsequently suffered from a number of scandals, including some involving the prime minister's finances. Although he survived a number of no-confidence votes, in Dec., 2010, he faced an investigation by a leadership tribunal over financial allegations. Somare stepped aside as prime minister, and his deputy, Sam Abal, became acting prime minister (and again in April); Somare returned to office in Jan., 2011.

In March, Somare was found guilty of failing to file his financial information properly and was suspended from office for two weeks in April; in June, his son announced his retirement for health reasons (following an April heart operation), but constitutionally it was not an official resignation. In August, an alliance of opposition members and disgruntled government coalition members voted in Peter O'Neill, the works and transport minister and former finance minister, as prime minister; the supreme court ruled that the move was unconstitutional in Dec., 2011. The ruling created a constitutional crisis and a contest for power, with O'Neill's government backed by parliament and generally maintaining control while Somare's continued to be backed by the supreme court.

Elections in June, 2012, resulted in a plurality for O'Neill's People's National Congress, and he became prime minister in August with the support of Somare. In 2014 O'Neill was implicated in a corruption investigation, and in June an arrest warrant was issued in order to question him. The prime minister fought the warrant in court, and subsequently dismissed high-ranking police officers and the anticorruption task force, sparking a political crisis. The attorney general was also dismissed, but for opposing constitutional changes proposed by the government.

By July, 2016, anticorruption cases or investigations involved the prime minister, finance minister, new attorney general, and a supreme court justice, and protests calling for the prime minister to resign, which had begun with students, had spread beyond the universities. O'Neill's government, however, survived a confidence vote that the supreme court had required be held; the government was accused of threatening to withhold development funding from electoral districts to insure a vote of support. After the 2017 elections, O'Neill again formed a coalition government and continued as prime minister. In Dec., 2017, the 2014 arrest warrant for O'Neill was dismissed by the supreme court. A strong and deadly earthquake in Feb., 2018, caused significant destruction in mountainous W central Papua New Guinea.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Papua New Guinea: Selected full-text books and articles

Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea: The Telling of Difference By Deborah B. Gewertz; Frederick K. Errington Cambridge University Press, 1999
Landmarks: Reflections on Anthropology By Andrew Strathern Kent State University Press, 1993
Articulating Change in the "Last Unknown" By Frederick K. Errington; Deborah B. Gewertz Westview Press, 1995
The Art of Kula By Shirley F. Campbell Berg, 2002
The Future Prospects for Entrepreneursbip in Papua New Guinea. (Global Perspective) By Schaper, Michael Journal of Small Business Management, Vol. 40, No. 1, January 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Papua and New Guinea, a Contemporary Survey By Brian Essai Oxford University Press, 1961
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