• Indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea

    Indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea

    Papua New Guinea (PNG), formally the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania that encompasses the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and covers an area of 462,840 km2.1 The country’s name comes from “Papou” which, according to the naturalist Alfred Wallace, originates in the Malaysian puwah-puwah or papuwah meaning “frizzy”.2

Indigenous World 2020: Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG), formally the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania that encompasses the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and covers an area of 462,840 km2.1 The country’s name comes from “Papou” which, according to the  naturalist  Alfred Wallace, originates in the Malaysian puwah-puwah or papuwah meaning “frizzy”.2 New Guinea was the name given to the area by a 16th century Spanish explorer due to the assumed resemblance of its inhabitants to those of Equatorial Guinea in Africa. The country gained independence in 1975 and is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.3

Almost symbolically a federal structure, Papua New Guinea comprises 20 administrative provinces: Bougainville, Central, Chimbu, Eastern Highlands, East New Britain, East Sepik, Enga, Gulf, Madang, Manus, Milne Bay, Morobe, National Capital, New Ireland, Northern, Sandaun, Southern Highlands, Western, Western Highlands and West New Britain.

The island of Bougainville, which geographically forms part of the Solomon Islands but politically and administratively falls under Papua New Guinea, became a self-governing region in 2004. The inhabitants of PNG are known as Papua New Guineans or Papuans. It is the most multilingual country in the world, with 830 languages spoken among a population of 8.4 million, i.e. an average of 9,100 speakers per language.4

Papua New Guinea was absent from the vote on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007.

Situation in Bougainville

The island of Bougainville has been the theatre of disturbance since 1988 when the Bougainville Revolutionary Army was created to fight for the island’s independence. The reasons for this demand for secession lie in the running of the Panguna copper mine because while none of the economic benefits have accrued to the local inhabitants, it has been an ecological disaster for the region. The withdrawal of the PNG army from Bougainville in March 1990 was followed by a proclamation of the island’s independence in May 1990.

A peace agreement was signed between the two parties in January 1991 but the return of the government’s military to Bougainville in October 1992 resulted in a resumption in hostilities. The capital, Arawa, was taken in January 1993. In October 1994, a peace conference was organised which culminated in a ceasefire but fighting resumed once more in 1996 following the murder of Bougainville’s transitional head of government. The year 2001 saw an end to the murderous conflict in Bougainville with the signing of a new peace agreement in Arawa, the island’s capital.

Bougainville was granted the status of “self-governing region” within Papua New Guinea and Joseph Kabui, former head of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, became the first President of the autonomous region. The aim was to organise a referendum on Bougainville’s independence “in the coming years”. Twelve years of conflict resulted in between 10,000 and 20,000 victims, equalling 10% of the island’s population, the most bloody conflict in the Pacific since 1945.

The referendum outlined in the peace agreement took place between 23 November and 7 December 2019 and the result was resounding: 176,928 voters, or 98% of the votes cast, voted for independence, according to official figures published on 11 December. “Now we feel free, at least psychologically,” stated the President of the region, John Momis, on hearing the result.

Will the island therefore become the 194th state to be recognised by the United Nations? Nothing is certain. The referendum was not binding and represents only one stage in a process that dates back nearly 20 years.5

The extractive industries

PNG’s economy is a dual one. Economic growth is largely ensured by relatively prosperous mining enclaves that have few if any impacts on the rest of the economy. Strongly capitalistic and in large part the domain of foreign investors, this industry is a modern one that exports all its production. It accounts for the bulk of private investment, but only a small proportion of employment, and coexists alongside a stagnant subsistence economy.6

There have been numerous conflicts, many of them ongoing, both among the Papuan tribes affected by the mines and between the Papuan tribes and the government or provincial officials in power, termed neo-Guineans by the Papuan tribes.

Major mining conflicts in the region7

Ok Tedi Mine – North West Province copper – BHP Billiton

By-products from the mine have caused harm to the approximately 50,000 people living in the 120 villages downstream of the mine in various and widespread ways, both environmental and social. In 2007, the UNEP noted that “uncontrolled releases of 70 million tonnes of waste rock and tailings from the Ok Tedi mine are found every year along more than 10 km2 of the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers, resulting in flooding, sediment deposition, forest damage and a serious decline in the region’s biodiversity.”8 “Waste from the Ok Tedi mine has resulted in a loss of fish, a vital source of food for the local community, a loss of forest and crops due to flooding, and a loss of areas of great spiritual value to villagers, which are now submerged in mine waste.”9

Porgera Mine – Enga Province – Gold and silver Barrick Gold 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has investigated six cases of alleged gang rapes committed by the security staff employed by Barrick Gold. In each of these cases, the women were allegedly raped after being found on the slag heaps by the company’s guards. The women interviewed by HRW described acts of extreme violence. One of them recounted having been raped by six security guards after one of her aggressors had kicked her in the face, breaking her teeth. HRW has also investigated the cases of people who claim to have been beaten or mistreated by guards after being detained on the slag heaps.10

Ramu Mine – Madang Province Nickel – MCC (Metallurgical Corporation of China)

In 2019, PNG’s environmental authority shut down the Ramu Mine and Nickel processing plant in August after a spill of 80,000 litres of toxic slurry went into the bay and surrounding ocean. The temporary closure in 2019 is the latest challenge to the $2 billion Ramu Nico mining operation. The mine and processing plant which was China’s first major resource project in PNG when it opened in 2012. Local communities have repeatedly demanded compensation for the negative impacts of the mine and the pipeline since the project began, contesting its plans to dispose of its tailings into the ocean, which failed in 2010. After operations began, the mine has faced attacks from the local community, leaked slurry and had one reported fatal accident in 2016 which also forced a closure.11 The court case against MCC and the Ramu Mine will continue into 2020.12

Hela Mine – Hela Province – Liquefied Gas EXXON Gaz

When we protested, the PNG police shot us. We want the company to relocate us by buying us land, and providing the public services we were promised!” insists M. Dale, barefoot. Around him, a crowd of red teeth nod in agreement. Anger is rising in the Highlands region, where the land of 20,000 traditional owners has now been crossed by the project. These landowners contest that ExxonMobil, its development partners and the PNG government, failed to follow the required processes to identify them, ensure benefits in accordance with the agreements and pay royalties on time and to the correct people.

In 2018, Papua New Guinean landowners in the Highlands took  up arms against the natural gas project. Mongabay reported, “heavily armed civilian groups set fire to construction equipment and assets owned by the ExxonMobil-led PNG LNG project”. Armed tensions have continued to escalate.13

On 10 July 2019, a conflict over control of a gold deposit broke out in Hela Province between rival Highlands tribes, resulting in 24 deaths. The Highlands tribes have been at loggerheads for centuries but the clashes have become more murderous recently with the influx of automatic weapons.14


Notes and references

  1. The other half of the island, Western New Guinea, forms part of Indonesia
  2. “PapouasieNouvelle-Guinée”. 2015. Cefan.Ulaval.Ca. http://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/pacifique/papoung.htm
  3. “Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée”. Fr.Wikipedia.Org. https://fr.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guin%C3%A9e#Langues.
  4. “GITPA : Polynésie Française Maoh’i”. 2019. Org. http://gitpa.org/ Peuple%20GITPA%20500/GITPA%20500-9WEBDOCPAPOUSCHRONOPNG. htm.
  5. Dellerba, Isabelle. “L’Archipel De Bougainville Vote En Faveur De Son Indépendance, Un Combat Encore Long”. Le Monde.Fr. https://www.lemonde.fr/ international/article/2019/12/12/l-archipel-de-bougainville-vote-en-faveur-de- son-independance-un-combat-encore-long_6022618_3210.html.
  6. “Le Contexte Économique De La Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée Observer Les Pays BMCE Trade”. Bmcetrade.Co.Ma. http://www.bmcetrade.co.ma/fr/ observer-les-pays/papouasie-nouvelle-guinee/economie-3.
  7. “GITPA : Polynésie Française Maoh’i”. 2019. org. http://gitpa.org/Peuple%20GITPA%20500/GITPA%20 500-9WEBDOCPAPOUSEXTRACTIVISMEPNG.htm.
  8. United Nations Environment Programme Accessed on 16/12/07. Archived 19 August 2007 at the Wayback
  9. “Australian Conservation Foundation, Leaving the scene of the mine”. org.au. Archived from the original on 29 June 2011.
  10. Albin-Lackey, 2020. “Papua New Guinea: Serious Abuses At Barrick Gold Mine”. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/02/01/papua-new-guinea-serious-abuses-barrick-gold-mine.
  11. Harriman, Bethanie. “Chinese-Owned Nickel Plant In PNG Shut Down After Toxic Spill”. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-25/chinese- owned-nickel-plant-in-png-shut-down-after-toxic-spill/11636086.
  12. Read more about the developments of the case here: https://www.business-org/en/papua-new-guinea-chinese-owned-ramu-nickel-spills-200000-litres-of-toxic-slurry-into-the-sea-co-commits-to-address- compensation
  13. Woods, Lucy EJ. 2018. “Papua New Guinea Landowners Take Up Arms Against Natural Gas Project”. Mongabay Environmental News. https://news.mongabay. com/2018/06/papua-new-guinea-landowners-take-up-arms-against-natural- gas-project/.
  14. 2019. “Au Moins 24 Morts Dans Des Affrontements Tribaux En Papouasie-Nouvelle Guinée”. Le Point. https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/au- moins-24-morts-dans-des-affrontements-tribaux-en-papouasie-nouvelle- guinee-10-07-2019-2323695_24.php .

Patrick Kulesza is the Executive Director of GITPA (Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones www.gitpa.org). He conducted an information gathering mission to Papua from November 2018 to June 2019.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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