Papua New Guinea has come a long way from a society that began cultivating crops in 8000 BC and had no need for a market economy. It came in touch with the outside world just about 100 years ago. …

-- PAPUA New Guinea is the most exotic country on earth.

A visitor is quite likely to be asked, "What is a nuclear family?" According to the local joke in PNG, it consists of a mum, a dad, two kids and an anthropologist. But given the worldwide interest in environment, it might be more correct today to reply, "A mum, a dad, two kids and a biodiversity expert."

For a long time now, PNG has attracted hordes of people keen to put "unknown" cultures under a microscope -- including Margaret Mead and, more recently, lovers of flora and fauna. But Papua New Guineans themselves have never favoured intrusive foreigners. An apocryphal story recounts that Sir Paulius Matane, PNG's first ambassador to the US, stalked out of Margaret Mead's funeral service over two decades ago, enraged at superlative praises of her "good work" among the New Guineans. More recently in 1992, when US conservation groups organised a biodiversity workshop to assess PNG's conservation needs, local villagers and environmentalists like Joseph Ka'au protested.

This proud insularity, even intra-country, has meant that PNG's 4 million citizens speak a mindboggling 869 languages, over half of the world's current count of 1,400 languages. Language groups vary from 200 to 300 people to about 100,000, and linguistic loyalties and grammar could very well be totally dissimilar in areas only 5 km apart.

This rich cultural complexity keeps the world hooked: PNG was probably the last of the countries explored by the Europeans, and likely one of the most mysterious. Papua New Guineans first set eyes upon a white man in the 1880s, and many living in the Highlands only in the 1930s. In fact, in June 1993, government officers claimed to have found a new tribe of only 79 people -- the nomadic Liawep clan which has its own dialect and traditional dress of tree bark and leaves -- in the mountainous jungles of West Sepik province.

A land of Stone Age people, is how travel brochures hyperbolically sell PNG. But veteran Australian journalist Sean Dorney points out in his book, Papua New Guinea, "The Highlanders of PNG were amongst the earliest members of the human race to grow food intensively." Archaeologists have found evidence of a complex system of agricultural channels at Kuk near Mount Hagen that dates back to about 8000 BC. These early farmers are thought to have grown sugarcane and starchy crops like taro (a root crop similar to India's arbi) and cooking bananas.

Despite early agricultural beginnings, PNG cultures did not evolve into a post-agricultural society, perhaps because the bananas and root crops grown in plenty round the year could not be stored. People grew food and consumed it quickly; there was never any need for markets, towns and other infrastructure. Survival was on a virtually week to week, if not day to day, basis.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA AT A GLANCE
Population: 4 million
Annual population growt rate: 2.3%
Urban population: 16%
Population density (per 1,000 people 88
Life expectancy: 54.9 years
Access to safe water: 33%
Daily calorie supply (as % of requirements): 114
Adult literacy: 52%
Scientists and technicoans (per 1,000 people): 3.2
Labour force (as % of total population): 47
Women in labout force (as % of total labour): 39
People in absolute poverty: 73%
Land area: 45.3 million ha
Forest area (as % of land area): 84.4
Annual rate of deforestation: 0.1
GDP: $3.3 billion
GNP per capita: $850
Food import dependency: 27.5%
Commercial energy consumption per capita (kg of oil equivalent): 233
Total debt (as % of GNP): 84
Terms of trade (1987=100): 75
Total Official Development Assistance received: $381 million
Official Development Assistance as % of GNP: 11.2

source:United Nations Development, Human Development Report, 1993.



The ancient agricultural system was probably unchanged for thousand of years until Malay traders introduced the sweet potato, locally called kaokao -- a plant the Spanish first picked up in South America and introduced into Europe and their colonies in the Far East. From the coastal areas of what is now the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, which borders PNG on the west, kaokao made its way to the Highlands and brought a rapid change in lifestyles.

Because the sweet potato flourishes on almost all soils, it elbowed every previous crop to the periphery. People gave up the complex drainage systems of the type discovered at Kup. The sweet potato revolution expanded pig farming because the Highlanders now had a food crop that grew uncomplainingly. And they pushed it further up the mountains because it took readily to altitudes.

The country's geography has a been a major factor in its rich cultural diversity. PNG sits on a highly mobile segment of the earth's crust, serrated with folded and faulted mountain ranges that even today produce earthquakes and volcanic explosions. The terrain is so barrier-ridden that Port Moresby, the country's capital, is even today unconnected by road to any city or town.

Most travel is by air -- there are 22 major airports and about 450 air strips, and the air strips per capita stands at 1 per 10,000 people, higher than any other country. Air transport grew early with gold mining activities in the interior regions of the country.

Quaintly, the church played a cardinal role in the development of the aviation system and even today operates the largest number of flights in the bush. In fact, stories abound of enterprising villagers building air strips on their own after hearing neighbours talk of big birds landing with men bearing wonderful gifts. In many remote parts, the only way to transport a sack of taro to the local market is to take a flight.

The colonisers The first white people to see the island of New Guinea were probably the Portuguese in 1511-12. About three centuries later, the Dutch claimed Irian Jaya, the western half of the island; later, the Germans took over the northeastern quarter. The desultory British, prodded by Australia, dug their flag into the southeastern quarter. In 1906, Australia assumed responsibility for British New Guinea and renamed it Papua.

After World War I, the League of Nations granted Australia a mandate to administer both Papua and the former German colony. Carrying this permission further after World War II, Australia began nursing colonial ambitions.

Not for long, though. A UN trusteeship council mission that visited PNG in 1962 criticised Australia for failing to encourage political, social and economic progress. In response, Australia began to prepare a disgruntled PNG for self-governance. "In the end," journalist Dorney puts it, on September 16, 1975, "Independence came with a rush. It was handed over before any mass struggle arose."

The Constitution that Papua New Guineans gave themselves would make any Gandhian or environmentalist proud. "Integral human development" lies at the heart of the five "national goals" provided in the Constitution: human-centred development, equal opportunity to all in the development process, self-reliance and effective control over resources, promotion of the unique Papua New Guinean way, and every citizen's obligation as a trustee of future generations to conserve the environment.

In December 1972, three years before independence, the national coalition government of Michael Somare announced eight development objectives: a larger proportion of the economy controlled by PNG; more equal distribution of benefits; decentralisation (of economic activity, planning and government spending, with emphasis on agricultural development, village industry and internal trade); small-scale artisan activity; self-reliance; locally-raised revenue; equal participation by women, and government control and involvement (to ensure the desired kind of employment).

PNG became one of the earliest developing countries to enact an explicit law for environmental protection -- the Environment Planning Act of 1978, which makes mandatory an environment plan for development projects.

These early hopes are, however, wallowing in largely empty phrases. PNG is increasingly plugged into the international marketplace; over the past five years, it has suffered a serious economic crisis. The Paias Wingti-Sir Julius Chan coalition that took charge of the country in 1992 has committed itself to "economic development".

In fact, in his statement on economic development policies in late 1992, Sir Julius, the minister for finance and planning, skipped all allusions to the Constitution. He bluntly stated that he would pay no attention to "the rambling and waffling from self-proclaimed philosophers who continue to want everyone to be equal -- but equally poor instead of equally comfortable." He proposed sweeping plans to stimulate the economy: "We must restore investor confidence...This government will do everything it can to provide an environment conducive to private sector development."

This scare might some way off but paradise is never forever: PNG's oil and mineral wealth will ensure that the country remains solvent for a long time, but one day this wealth will peter out. The country will then have no choice but to move towards exploiting its vast forestry and fishery resources. In anticipation of the inevitable, it would be better if PNG were to develop a broad-based process of development.

The World Bank had projected that the new oil and mineral projects would guide the economic upturn of 1991 and 1992 well into 1993. But the bank also warned that 1993, which was the Kutubu oil project's first full year, would also be its peak output year. Further, the output from the major mines would also decline after the mid-1990s.

The bank estimated that the positive trade balance would slowly shrink to a meagre $20 million by the turn of the century unless new sources of exports are found. Unfortunately, new oil and natural gas reserves are yet to be identified. If they don't deliver, domestic growth will slow down, perhaps along with a fall in imports.

Like in any other country, this high rate of unemployment is leading to a rapidly growing law and order problem. And it is government business as usual: in order to control rapid urbanisation and the movement of rural people, the government is considering a bill that will make it necessary for all Papua New Guineans to carry a pass. The opposition sees the bill as a method to muzzle critics.

The spectre of a land mutilated and buccaneered of its resources is PNG's nightmare. Prime Minister Paias Wingti recently warned an audience at the University of Papua New Guinea: "The island-state of Nauru poses an extreme warning of the impact of uncontrolled resource exploitation. A land with a high income per head, but a devastated environment and quality of life." Nauru has exhausted its only internationally saleable resource, phosphate deposits, and now has nothing left.

Which is why PNG's giant dependence on external trade must diminish. In 1992, exports constituted an estimated 47.45 per cent of the GDP and import dependence was equivalent to 50 per cent of the GDP. PNG has very low, and steadily declining, levels of non-mining investments, indicative of the country's development problems. Private non-mineral investment declined from 9.6 per cent of GDP in the early 1880s to 6.8 per cent in the early 1990s. Public investment, in the meantime, also dropped from 6.1 per cent to 4.2 per cent. The biggest constraint is lack of viable investment opportunities. The government often leaves it to village communities to negotiate with mining corporations, provide schools, water supply and roads.

It is telling that in other areas too, human integral development and self-reliance is seriously wanting. Education, health and rural development have received scant attention and budgetary support. While during the 1970s, several organisations preached indigenous and appropriate techniques, "Now, all the interest in small-scale appropriate technology has gone," says professor David Mowbray of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby.

The economy, though reasonably muscular, is based largely on primary exports of minerals like copper and gold and cash crops like coffee and copra. The domestic manufacturing sector is tiny and large quantities of consumer goods are imported. Minerals, cash crops and logs constituted 99.6 per cent of PNG's exports in 1992. But the slash in international prices hammered down agricultural exports from 37 per cent to 12 per cent between 1985 and 1992. The murderous vagaries of the international marketplace have severely devalued the resource base of the country, pushing it harder to exploit its minerals and forests.

The mining sector's share in the country's GDP (at current prices) is 23.4 per cent, next only to agriculture with 26.1 per cent. The large-scale import of mining equipment has forced an adverse balance of payments on the government for several years.

External investment
So far, the country's financing gap has been met through external loans and investment. Of the total 1.486 billion kina foreign equity holdings in the country in 1992, 1.2 billion kina were in the mineral sector. The countries with foreign equity holdings in PNG in 1992 were Australia (66 per cent), USA (11 per cent), and the UK (9 per cent). The country had a total outstanding debt of 3.115 billion kina, of which 64 per cent was private sector debt and 36 per cent official.

The mineral sector has given PNG a high debt and it has not contributed much to employment either. The annual addition to the country's labour force is around 50,000 but the economy can absorb barely 10 per cent of this increase. The mining and manufacturing sectors together employ 30,000 people. In 1990, the country had an estimated labour force of 1.72 million people.

Agriculture, however, is the main source of livelihood for 85 per cent of the population. But because of the adverse international economic conditions, employment in the formal agricultural sector also fell in 1990 and 1991. Employment in the mining sector, which accounts for only 2 per cent of the total wage employment, has been declining for many years despite rapid expansion in output.

The government must also pay greater attention to the educational and other needs of its numerous rural settlements. A village services programme was announced in 1992 to provide health and education services, strengthen village and community governance and support a law and order system that includes local level management and resolution of disputes. But many experts doubt that the programme will be implemented because of a paucity of adequate staff at the district level.

The laudable idea of building upon traditional community institutions is robbed of teeth by insufficient attention to productive village activities. Such programmes can degenerate easily into extensive corruption and anaemic dependence on government grants. There is a need to develop a mechanism whereby village communities can plan for the holistic improvement of village ecosystems through small-scale irrigation, fisheries development, appropriate cropping patterns, household industries and crafts, forestry-based occupations and smallholder marketing support. Such a programme will require experimentation in the various agro-ecological regions of the country and the involvement of scientists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as dynamic grassroots organisers.

Secondly, there is a need to spread national income more evenly across the country. PNG had a per capita income of $820 in 1991, but concentrated in a few hands and regions. For 80 per cent of the citizenry -- living in isolated villages cultivating tree crops for cash, and root crops for subsistence -- there is very little else. Regions with higher incomes tend to reflect minerals income and the earnings of expatriates. The Highlands and certain coastal provinces are the worst off.

Since Independence, Australia has provided substantial financial assistance in the form of untied budgetary support. The growing self-confidence of PNG's leaders led to an agreement in 1992 that this support would be phased out by 2000. But it also poses a challenge: government financial resources must be spent carefully to ensure that investment in development increases substantially.

Wingti is pushing for a "Look North" policy to develop strong economic ties with Asian neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia, which have considerable experience with natural resource development. Chinese state companies also are showing a keen interest in investing in PNG, especially in agriculture, food processing and forest products.

The rice issue
Thirdly, the country must pay more attention to its agriculture. Except for oil palm, the production of all major export crops has been declining. Cash crop agriculture has performed badly mainly because of the steep drop in world prices since the mid-1980s. A large part of cash crop production takes place on smallholder plots. Since November 1992, the government has substantially increased guaranteed minimum support prices for cash crops.

But very little attention is being paid to subsistence foods. Root crops supply about 45 per cent of the country's calorie requirements, compared to only five per cent in industrialised countries. PNG has the largest genetic diversity of taro in the world and these irreplaceable taro cultivators must be protected for future breeding programmes.

In a dramatic change in food habits, Papua New Guineans have moved away from taro and kaokao to rice, tinned mackerel and tinned drippings (beef fat), almost all of which are imported. Western foods like biscuits and coke are also in great demand. "Taro is no longer much appreciated by students of UPNG," says a professor there. "They consider it rustic, rural food." The use of rice began during the Australian colonial period when rice and tinned fish came as wages. The diet reordering has led to heavy imports of rice and tinned fish, which come in without any duties. The market for rural producers is in a shambles.

Rice is not only a mass gastronomic issue, it is a political issue as well. Experts at Lae's University of Technology argue that there is no point in trying to increase taro or kaokao productivity unless the market for these crops expands. Experts warn that PNG, which has rarely known hunger before, could easily witness it soon, particularly in the Highlands.

The government's efforts to promote large-scale rice farming have not been very successful. Though several projects have been set up with the help of Taiwan to promote irrigated rice farming, the World Bank and FAO are sceptical about whether PNG has a comparative advantage in large-scale rice farming. An FAO study points out the villagers' response to rice cultivation is poor because the returns --- in terms of calorie yield per hectare -- for their time and effort are much less than from indigenous village agriculture. There also appear to be very few areas suitable for large-scale, mechanised rice-farming. Moreover, local rice sales flounder in competition with high quality imported rice.

Although Papua New Guineans in government dismiss these arguments as those of the rice import lobby, it is a fact that, given PNG's topography, most rice will be grown in coastal areas, which will leave the large population of poor taro and kaokao farmers in the Highlands without a market for their crops. Therefore, considerable research is needed to find crops that can be introduced into smallholder production of different agro-ecological zones of the country.

There is also a need for a cultural revolution, to lead affluent Papua New Guineans back to their traditional food crops. "I don't eat rice," says environmentalist Joseph Ka'au.

PNG has major economic and political challenges before it, if the benefits of its natural resource exploitation are to modernise the society in an economically sustainable manner and without losing its extraordinary roots. The unique "Papua New Guinean way", as the country's Constitution puts it, is still waiting to be discovered amid the globalising influence of external interventions -- from the World Bank and multinational corporations -- and of a national elite getting rapidly entrenched in its urban centres.

Rapid modernisation
But there is no doubt that the process of modernisation in PNG is remarkably rapid. Its people display an extraordinary ability to learn rapidly; an average citizen is a multilinguist, speaking three or four languages, apart from the indigenous language.

Journalist Dorney recounts the country's experience in spreading numeracy. Because many indigenous languages had no concept of counting beyond 2 or 3, people entering business had difficulty in grasping modern mathematical concepts. To save trade stores from going bankrupt, the department of small business introduced them straight to pocket calculators. Laptops may be rare in South Asia, but they abound in PNG.

It is precisely this ability of Papua New Guineans to adapt to technological modernisation rapidly that holds them together in their myriad challenges. Says Vincent Manuyakasi of the PNG Integral Human Development Trust, "The first question everybody asks us is how literacy can be possible in 869 languages." But for Manuyakasi, this is a secondary question. "Literacy for what?" is his first question. The colonial legacy, he says, gave the Papua New Guineans "convertive literacy". "We cannot continue to believe that the Western education system has all the answers. Education is like a forest. It cannot be planted, nurtured and harvested. It can only feed upon and grow from its natural surroundings. Our imported system is planned to make us believers in the system. We need to break away from this mass hypothesis before the globe becomes one big plantation."

PNG's diversity may today appear to be one big problem, but it is really its ultimate strength. As Manuyakasi put it, "If anything can work in PNG, it will work anywhere in the world!" Papua New Guineans know their problems. They must now face up to them.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

Scroll To Top