• 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
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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

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

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

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

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