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Population : total population of PNG is 3,752 million inhabitants according to the 1990 census. Rural population represents 85,7% of total population.

Political system : PNG is a federal nation state, member of the Commonwealth. The national government has a parliament made up of elected representatives from each provincial district, and of one representative for each region. Ethnic diversity has one advantage : no single ethnic group has a majority and, therefore, none are able to secure a position of supremacy. The hundreds of different ethnic groups are actually represented among the government officials. This is what allowed for the emergence of a strong nationalist feeling.

Since the 1977 decentralisation law, PNG also has 19 provincial governments (provinces of which 13 include important forest areas : 5 on the islands and 8 on New Guinea). Each province has a provincial assembly made up of representatives elected in each district. The election process therefore appears as an important element of the political apparatus, each district having several elected representatives. District level organization also includes local councils with elected councillors ; magistrates are also elected. Local councillors are often traditional headmen of outstanding ability.

The judicial organization reflects the political organization.

At village level, courts abide by customary law : judges are elected (they are often important people within the traditional power structure) and their authority extends over all the cases that occur within the community (theft, divorce, disputes, but also conflicts over land). At district and national levels, courts abide by British law, with professional magistrates.


Timber is one of the main resources of PNG, together with copper, gold, petroleum and natural gas. However, only 150 000 km2 (out of 460 000 km2) are potentially exploitable, and 37 000 km2 have already been acquired from the rightful claimants for exploitation purposes. The community as a whole can be a strong pressure group and constrains forest development. But the biggest pressure comes from mining rather than forestry activities : Porgera gold mine (that has entailed major roadwork), Ok Tedi, petroleum on the Great Papuan Plateau (Lake Kutubu, the Foe) and the construction of a huge pipe-line from the plateau to Daru.

Land tenure

Modern laws include the indigenous populations' traditional rights to the land and its resources. In the Constitution, people's rights to land, to their own culture and to self-determination are guaranteed by law.

If the state wants to use resources, it must acquire rights to exploit the land from the traditional owners and these rights usually only last a limited amount of time. The state then rents out the land to investors. Accordingly, land and forest cannot be usurped.

The laws governing land tenure are defined by a series of bills introduced since 1952. Previously, disputes over land tenure were dealt with exclusively by the Supreme Court. In 1952, this function was handed over to the Native Land Commission, but many cases were still being heard by the courts of indigenous affairs and by officials of the Australian colonial administration (mainly cases over rights to the produce of the land). In 1962, this commission was replaced by the Land Titles Commission that had exclusive jurisdiction over land cases and over decisions made in terms of property. This new commission divided the country into 500 areas so as to record systematically all the title deeds, but failed in its purpose : villagers preferred settling territorial disputes in a traditional way rather than have to wait for a judicial decision, often thought to be unsatisfactory.

A board of enquiry was set up in 1973 to write up a report on the situation of land tenure. The result was the 1975 Land Disputes Settlement Act : it involves the people themselves in the dispute settlement process by referring them to a system made up of three different levels.

The first level allows for mediation (mediators are residents who are recogized by the Land Disputes Committee). If mediation fails, decision is referred to a local court that has wide-ranging power and provides very flexible solutions (it can recognize multiple rights over land). If unsatisfied, one can appeal to the provincial court (people must then pay a fee)[5].

Land tenure is complex subject which people have strong feelings about : territories in PNG are therefore mostly defined by clear boundaries but there are no title deeds ; owners are only recognized as such when it is necessary, e.g. if rights to use the land are to be transferred to a company for the purpose of mining or logging.

The government's forest policy is controlled by a legislation which has been actively reinforced. In 1991 for example, the Vice Prime Minister, Ted Diro, was found guilty over 81 corruption charges, all to do with forestry, and he was removed from his office (PNG Times 10/10/1991). After this case, a new and stricter Forestry Management Agreement was signed with new instructions concerning forest management ; it also gave landowners more power to intervene in decision-making and participate in the development of their forests (PNG Times 19/12/1991).

Though this appears to be an ideal situation but problems persist. People often lack adequate information on the possible consequences should they sell their land to the government, or they understand them too late, after having felt the impact of forest exploitation. Often, people ask for development, impatiently, overestimating by far the benefits and underestimating the possible damage of some forms of development. Also, the experience of one group rarely benefits other groups because of ethnic and linguistic barriers.

In the context of modern development, indigenous populations are very aware of their traditional rights over the land and of the value of the latter ; they therefore fight bitterly for compensation (sometimes overestimated) when their land is taken over for commercial purposes.

Example of the Ok Tedi and Porgera mines for which small traditional landowners got both compensation and shares in the mines.

However New Guinea's indigenous populations cannot conceive of land being sold and bought.

Disappointed landowners do not hesitate to embark upon violent displays (the crisis at the Bougainville copper mine is an example of this). The government is therefore increasingly taking measures to encourage landowners to set up their own companies and enter into a triangular relationship with the government and the firm. The Kumil forestry project in Madang province is a good example of this type of action[6].

[5] in GORDON & MEGGIT 1985 : 85-88.

[6] see RENNER 1990.

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