• 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

The Indigenous World 2024: Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a country in Oceania that covers an area of 462,840 km2 and the eastern half of the Island of New Guinea and nearby islands. According to the National Statistics Office, it has a population of approximately 11.78 million across 22 provinces as of 2021.[1] The island of Bougainville, which geographically forms part of the Solomon Islands but politically and administratively falls under PNG, became a self-governing region in 2004. The country’s population has more than 600 cultural backgrounds with over 840 languages spoken.[2] PNG is considered the most culturally and linguistically diverse country in the world.

PNG is rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, silver, oil, gas, and timber, which make up the majority of the nation’s economy. Its key international exports include natural gas, gold, copper, palm oil, nickel, crude petroleum, lumber, refined petroleum, tuna and coffee.[3] The nation is facing many challenges, including an estimated 39.9% of the population living below the poverty line.[4] Further, only an estimated 20.9% of the population has access to electricity.[5] There are also issues around corruption, violence,[6],[7] and environment degradation.[8]

Climate change is significantly affecting PNG, impacting its Indigenous population and the country's development and well-being. The country is facing rising sea levels, coastal and land erosion, saltwater intrusion, coral bleaching, extreme weather events, and health issues, affecting Indigenous communities' lives, livelihoods, food security, health, and culture. Despite these challenges, PNG continues to contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from deforestation, land-use change, and the energy sector, with land use, land-use change, and forestry accounting for approximately 70% of its emissions. PNG also emits carbon dioxide from the energy sector, mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation, which accounts for 80% of the total installed electricity capacity.[9]

The Government of PNG was absent from the vote on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007.

The Indigenous Peoples of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are the original inhabitants of the land. We have distinct cultures, histories, and identities. We are often referred to as Papua New Guineans or Papuans but we also have our own ethnic tribal and clan names throughout the 22 provinces. We have a strong connection to our land, which we regard as our source of life, identity, and spirituality. We practise various forms of subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as cash crop farming and small-scale mining.

In 2023, the Indigenous Peoples of PNG faced various threats and challenges to our livelihood, rights, and environment.

The Porgera gold mine

As reported in the Indigenous World 2021,[10] Porgera has been on care and maintenance since April 2020 when the government declined to renew its mining lease. Barrick Niugini Limited (BNL) is reported to have spent more than a billion kina (approx. EUR 246 million) on care and maintenance since the mine was closed in 2019.[11] Notably, in 2021, Prime Minister Marape issued a statement stating that Barrick is committed to reopening the mine, and the government – through Kumul Mining Holdings Ltd as a partner – is similarly committed.[12]

The New Porgera Progress Agreement (NPPA), reached in March 2023 and involving Barrick Gold Corporation, the government, and New Porgera Limited, allowed the resumption of operations at the Porgera gold mine with all parties confirming their commitment to reopening the mine at the earliest opportunity, in line with the terms of two other agreements reached in 2022: the Porgera Project Commencement Agreement and the New Porgera Limited Shareholders Agreement.[13] New Porgera Limited's equity, at 51%, is shared by PNG stakeholders, including local landowners and the Enga provincial government. The mine restarted operations on 22 December 2023.[14]

However, the unresolved problems and challenges that have resulted from the 30-year operation of the mine continued in 2023. The massive open pit mine[15] remains one of the most controversial mining projects in Papua New Guinea as it has a chequered record of serious human rights violations and environmental damage for the Indigenous Ipili people of Porgera and communities in the Porgera Golden Valley. Despite promises of benefit-sharing and increased ownership of the mine by the government entity, the local communities are concerned that nothing will improve.

Issues that remain unresolved in relation to the mine include: forced evictions; water pollution; disproportionate payment and lack of benefit-sharing; police brutality; extrajudicial killings; sexual violence; physical violence; and a lack of access to justice.[16]

As of the end of 2023, there had been disproportionate efforts and limited progress made to address these issues, nor to initiate proper reconciliation plans for reparations to be provided for victims and the Indigenous communities who have suffered harm.[17]

Bougainville – independence and the Panguna mine

As reported in the Indigenous World 2022,[18] on 7 July 2021, Bougainville's leaders set a deadline of 2027 for obtaining full independence and leaving PNG. In 2019, Bougainville residents voted 97.7% for independence in a referendum under the 2001 peace agreement that set out a roadmap, including the creation of an autonomous government or a referendum by 2020.[19]

As part of that process, in 2023, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), under the leadership of Ishmael Toroama, laid out a roadmap to increase Bougainville’s economic capacity in order to ensure its independence. Toroama has therefore called for the reopening of the Panguna mine. Chief among the concerns around the mine is the outstanding issue of cleaning up toxic waste from the Panguna site.

On 21 July 2021, after 32 years, Rio Tinto agreed to look into the environmental and human legacy of its gigantic Panguna mine.[20] The Panguna site was once the largest open pit copper mine in the world and it alone accounted for up to 40% of Papua New Guinea's exports. The mine was in full operation from 1972 to 1989, when Rio Tinto closed it as PNG descended into civil war. Despite the ongoing concerns surrounding the mine and its legacy,[21] Toroama has called repeatedly for its use:

The Panguna Mine is a multi-billion-kina resource that has remained dormant for almost 40 years now. Its mineral resources have the potential to transform the lives of Bougainvilleans through high-impact infrastructure development projects and improve and increase the human resource capacity of our people … If the mine could fund Papua New Guinea’s independence, it should rightfully fund Bougainville’s independence and development.[22]

Ok Tedi mine - North West Province - copper - BHP Billiton

On 13 September, the Board of the mine approved the extension of the mine’s life from 2033 to 2050, further extending the operational life of the longest-running gold, silver, and copper mine in the country. As with other mines in the nation, there remain key issues around human rights violations tied to the mine. Protests have continued over the by-products from the mine, which are estimated to have caused harm, both environmental and social, to the approximately 50,000 people living in the 120 villages downstream of the mine.[23]

Rights recognition as a pathway to addressing critical challenges

In the context of the development and governance of PNG, the recognition and protection of the rights and cultures of Indigenous Peoples is crucial. As evidenced in the updates above in relation to mining, we continue to face threats and barriers to our rights and cultures, including land disputes, mining activities, logging operations, infrastructure development projects, and lack of access to education, health, and justice.

The Indigenous Peoples of PNG also face discrimination, marginalization, and violence, based on our ethnicity, gender and religion. In international processes, including COP 28, Indigenous representatives from PNG continued to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the decision-making processes that affect our lives and livelihoods. In order to respond to the climate crisis, the resilience and adaptive capacity of Indigenous People must be supported.



Cressida Kuala (she/her) is an Indigenous Ipili woman from Porgera District in the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea. She is the founder and CEO of Porgera Red Wara River Women's Association Incorporated (PRWWA INC); was selected as a Pacific Indigenous Women Knowledge Holder, 2023; is a Business and Human Rights Advocate, a frontline Women’s Rights Defender, and an active Environment Defender.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] National Statistical Office of Papua New Guinea. “Population Estimate.” Accessed 12 January 2024. https://www.nso.gov.pg/statistics/population/

[2] “Papua New Guinea - Number of Languages Spoken 2021.” Statista. Accessed 27 January 2024. https://www.statista.com/statistics/266808/the-worlds-most-spoken-languages/.

[3] National Statistical Office of Papua New Guinea. “Economy: Gross Domestic Products.” Accessed 12 January 2024. https://www.nso.gov.pg/statistics/economy/gross-domestic-products/gross-domestic-products-2016-2022/

[4] World Bank. “Poverty & Equity Brief: Papua New Guinea.” April 2020. https://povertydata.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/PEB_PNG.pdf.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2024: Papua New Guinea,” Human Rights Watch, 13 January 2024, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/papua-new-guinea.

[6] According to the 2022 Papua New Guinea Human Rights Report of the United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by police; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious acts of government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men; and extensive child labor, including the worst forms of child labor.” https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/415610_PAPUA-NEW-GUINEA-2022-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf

[7] Idem

[8] Doherty, Ben and Lyanne Togiba. 2021. “Mining in the Pacific: a blessing and a curse.” The Guardian, 7 June 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/07/mining-in-the-pacific-a-blessing-and-a-curse

[9] CIA, 2021. Papua New Guinea, Energy Sector. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/papua-new-guinea

[10] Kulesza, Patrick. “Papua New Guinea.” In The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 613-621. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021. https://www.iwgia.org/en/png/4240-iw-2021-papua-new-guinea.html

[11] PNG Business News. “A Look into Porgera Gold Mine’s Lengthy Progress to Recommencement.” PNG Business News, 13 April 2023.

[12] RNZ News. 2023. “Marape says reopening of Porgera mine 'worth the effort'.” RNZ, 26 January 2023. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/504837/marape-says-reopening-of-porgera-mine-worth-the-effort

[13] Barrick Gold Corporation. “Barrick Steers Porgera Gold Mine Back Towards World-Class Production.” Porgera Joint Venture. Last modified 31 March 2023. http://www.porgerajv.com/Company/Media/Press-Release/

[14] RNZ News. 2023. “Marape says reopening of Porgera mine 'worth the effort'.” RNZ, 26 January 2023. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/504837/marape-says-reopening-of-porgera-mine-worth-the-effort

[15] The Porgera Joint Venture is an open pit and underground gold mine located at an altitude of 2,200-2,600 metres in the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea, some 600 kilometres north-west of Port Moresby.

[16] Op Cit 5, 6

[17] “Porgera landowners organisation urges Govt to address outstanding issues.” The National, 24 April 2023. https://www.thenational.com.pg/porgera-landowners-organisation-urges-govt-to-address-outstanding-issues/

[18] Kulesza, Patrick. “Papua New Guinea.” In The Indigenous World 2022, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 615-619. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2023. https://www.iwgia.org/en/png/4690-iw-2022-papua-new-guinea.html

[19] Kulesza, Patrick. “Papua New Guinea.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 617-622. Copenhagen: The International Work Group of Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). 2020. https://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf.

[20] Doherty, Ben. “After 32 Years, Rio Tinto to fund study of environmental damage caused by Panguna mine.” The Guardian, 21 July 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/21/after-32-years-rio-tinto-to-fund-study-of-environmental-damage-caused-by-panguna-mine

[21] Swanston, Tim, and Theckla Gunga. “Bougainville’s Destructive Goldmine Could Also Be Its $90 Billion Key to Independence.” ABC News, 5 June 2023. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-06-05/bougainville-panguna-mine-rio-tinto-legacy-impact-assessment/13393676.

[22] Autonomous Bougainville Government’s Focus Areas for 2024. PNG Business news. January 2024. https://www.pngbusinessnews.com/articles/2024/1/abg-focus-areas-for-2024

[23] Kulesza, Patrick. “Papua New Guinea.” in The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 617-622. IWGIA, 2020. http://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Business and Human Rights , Human rights, Protest



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