logo Papua New Guinea Buai web site logo Pan Asia Networking


By:  Anthony P. Power, Sept. 1998 - Sept. 1999
Part 1 of 2


This essay is written in an attempt to encourage thinkers in Papua New Guinea to understand something of what is happening in the world and in Papua New Guinea today, in the hope that they will develop a vision for Papua New Guinea for the next century and then apply themselves to making it a reality. The world today is rapidly changing and under the influence of economic rationalism and globalization, not for the good for the majority of ordinary people. Papua New Guinea is a modern state in the making, being formed from the products of an extraordinary, unique and ancient societal development that has much to offer the modern world today.

The writer is concerned that in an attempt to rush to modernity we will make all the mistakes of the western world and in the process lose the very elements of our society that could teach us how to avoid those mistakes. Following the inscription in the Greek Temple at Delphi the early Greek philosopher, Socrates, exhorted his students, "Know thyself!" This injunction must be taken to heart by thinking Melanesians today. The vast majority of Melanesians possess an intuitive and untutored knowledge of their own culture. Very few have studied their own culture in a formal, analytical and scientific manner and so few have an in depth knowledge of own their culture and history. This must change if Melanesians are to remain masters of their own destiny. This essay is structured in the following manner.

Firstly, we shall look at Melanesia yesterday in answer to the question "Where were we?" This will give us the opportunity to explore the nature of land groups, the small-scale societies, the mini-sovereign states that emerged over thousands of years of settled agricultural development and endure to the present day.

Secondly, in answer to the question "What happened?" we shall explore the impact of the colonial era on these small scale societies ushering them into the orbit of the large-scale society model of the nation state that is now common worldwide.

Thirdly, we shall try to answer the question "What is happening now?" This section will explore processes happening both in Papua New Guinea and in the world - the global village.

Finally, a vision for Papua New Guinea in the twenty-first century will be presented with practical recommendations to help us attain the vision. Fundamental to that vision is the view that the land group, the basic building block of traditional Melanesian society can be empowered, with wisdom and the transfer of management skills under the Land Groups Incorporation Act, to become the foundation for nation building.

The following diagram attempts to show the types of interaction envisaged by this paper. In order to understand what is happening in Papua New Guinea today we need to analyse the pre-colonial societies. The interaction of the customary society and the newly emerging nation state is the foundation on which we can then examine the Papua New Guinea interface with the world round us, the global village in which we are a small player, but a player none-the-less. By bringing all these elements into play we can have a hope of developing a vision for the future and take measures to make that vision a reality.

Figure No. 1: Self knowledge is the beginning of wisdom

Where were we? ­ Small-scale Societies

It is only possible to understand what is happening in Papua New Guinea today by having an appreciation of Melanesian society before there was any significant impact from Western society. People living in the country now known as Papua New Guinea developed hundreds of distinct languages. This is only possible (and necessary) because communities were isolated from each other especially by geographical boundaries like mountains and rivers. Even within the language groups communities were as small as the groups of families that combined together to hold their land against outsiders. These groups combined with each other in times of conflict developing affiliations and alliances of a political, military and social nature.

Amongst all these interactions, often involving intermarriage, these groups maintained their integrity by their close and integral relationship with the land. The land was prior and the group leaders maintained the group in order to maintain the land. Against outsiders the land was defended by force of arms. Within the group leaders went to extraordinary lengths to maintain this one to one relationship between the group and the land by exchange marriages, adoptions, and handing down from father to son and mother to daughter the stories of the group detailing their history and their tradition of land-holding. This would encompass a history of warfare, peace, natural catastrophes, technology, but above all survival. Even the examples of extinction of groups served the survival of other groups.

Though ruled by powerful autocrats (ol bigman), small-scale societies in Melanesia were in many ways egalitarian and even democratic. Every member of the group had rights and provided each was loyal to the group could expect to be looked after for every need until death. Most modern large-scale societies still cannot do this. This topic will be returned to in section three.

The most important aspect of the Melanesian small-scale societies is the all-pervasive group mentality which applies to all things in life including the very identity of the group. Various rituals and cults imbued young group members with the necessary attitudes and knowledge needed to prepare themselves for the defence and maintenance of the group. Right and wrong were determined purely by implications of such actions on the group. Stealing within the group was wrong but stealing from enemies was right. This particularized ethic is a very important feature of society that must be addressed in Papua New Guinea today.

The small-scale societies have persisted for tens of thousands of years. The early inhabitants occupied the entire island of New Guinea living very effectively by hunting and gathering. With the advent of agriculture after the last ice age 11,000 years ago small-scale societies have enjoyed settled agriculture. For ten thousand years the small-scale societies have flourished in an unbroken tradition to the modern day. In addition to the many domesticated plants introduced by early migrants several new plants were brought into cultivation locally including, sago, sugar cane, various green leaf vegetables and many fruits and nuts. This new technology allowed for a big increase in population, heightening inter-group tensions and rivalry over land holding.

Some scholars suggest that hunter-gatherer bands being nomadic or semi-nomadic were limited to about 30 persons. Settled agriculturalists however had an upper limit of about 400 being the upper limit on groups managed by face to face interaction. Groups would simply break up and seek new lands. If a group became too large for its land it had to acquire more by exploration, negotiation, or conquest, or suffer reduction by disease, hunger, or defeat. Since no group had superior military technology these conflicts were very local and groups stayed small. With these checks and balances a very significant population has persisted with uninterrupted traditions for many thousands of years. By comparison the most ancient large-scale society with unbroken cultural traditions up to the present day, that of China, goes back about five thousand years. Thus almost by definition Melanesian Society is very conservative and left alone by the outside world, may never have made the change to a large-scale society.

What happened? The impact of large-scale society

In the late 19th Century colonial powers came to Melanesia and imposed a large-scale social structure, that of a colony of a "state&quto;, on the thousands of "mini-states", the Melanesian land groups. In under a hundred years this imposition culminated in the "Independent State of Papua New Guinea" in 1976. This was brought about by superior technology, particularly the alphabet and guns. The autonomy of the small-scale societies was simply canceled by the flourish of a pen. The state now forbade warfare and "guaranteed" the security of the groups against their enemies. Theoretically this meant that the state guaranteed security of land holding.

The model of large-scale society imposed by the colonial power was itself the result of some two and a half thousand years of evolution. In the form it reached Melanesia the model for the state was Christian, democratic, capitalistic, technically advanced and Western European. Its knowledge had been committed to writing for about three thousand years ago at the time the Jews first wrote down their oral traditions in what became known as the bible.

An essential element of colonization was the impact of Christian missions, often predating the formal imposition of colonial government. The colonizing government was democratic with parliament and constitutional monarchy. The government possessed highly developed military technology able to conduct military intervention anywhere in the world with the only significant opposition coming from other European Powers. Coming to Melanesia in the last historical phase of colonialism, these European Powers were jealous of each other, engaging in a scramble to take charge of any land, resources and consumers, not already under the control of one or other. They were arrogant and ethnocentric with the view that they had the "mission" of bringing all the "benefits" of European civilization to all the non-European peoples of the world.

Business, the third pillar of colonialism, represented a manufacturing industry supported by science and technology and owned by immensely wealthy individuals and corporations whose continued wealth depended on converting the raw materials of the world into more valuable consumer items for its large urban populations and export to world market.

The characteristics of the colonial power, mentioned above, had important implications for the emergence of the State of Papua New Guinea. The Christian nature of the colonial power introduced universal concepts such as the sanctity of human life, implying an equality of rights for all men, women and children. This was the Christian teaching but it was not quite so in practice. Apart from the Christian nature of European parliamentary democracy the colonial power officially sanctioned the work of professional Christians, the missions, some of whom actually came before the colonial power. The goal of the missions was to convert to Christianity all the non-Christian peoples of the colony. This activity was in direct conflict with many of the traditional values and practices of the local small-scale societies.

Many of the points of conflict between the imposed form of government and the Melanesian communities were simply a result of ethnocentrism but many others were fundamental to the functioning of the democratic state. The government's role in keeping the peace and outlawing the bearing of arms and killing by private citizens is a very clear example. Laws against theft and respect for private property were equally important.

The superior European military power meant that one power would simply declare a land to be subject to the crown whether the local inhabitants wanted it or not. The military power meant that other European powers would respect each other's presence as each had comparable military might. Differences were solved by agreement where possible. In 1884 a conference in Berlin divided the large island of New Guinea three ways between Britain, Germany and Holland.

The same superior military power meant that government officers could impose their will on the small-scale societies and this was most evident in the banning of tribal warfare. Killing in the eyes of the colonial officers, was murder, punishable by hanging. This was the case both for killing within the particular small-scale society and also for killing enemy in other groups.

Colonies were normally seen as sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured products. New Guinea was seen as a source of bird of paradise plumes, copra and timber (especially sandalwood), gold, and originally labour for sugar plantations for Queensland. However, coming at the end of the colonizing era, the economic motive for colonization of New Guinea was not the most important for the colonial governments. They were more concerned in containing each other's spheres of influence. In spite of this there was a strong move towards economic development particularly in German New Guinea with the work of the German New Guinea Company.

Thus all the materialist values associated with modern western society were introduced with the colonial presence. Many of these contrasted greatly with traditional Melanesian values in the small-scale society. This is most obvious in attitudes to land. The inalienability of the group owned land in Melanesia is in stark contrast to the treatment of land as a commodity able to be bought and sold and owned by individuals as in the western world.

The imposition of statehood from outside resulted in a very severe dependency being imposed on the small-scale societies of Melanesia. In order to relate to the large-scale society, individuals and groups had to acquire technical skills, literacy, money and in all these instances the individual was expected to perform, not the group. Dozens of institutions not related to the traditional group were established such as schools, churches, police units, companies, government departments, courts and local government councils to mention a few. Once again the individual had to stand and face these on his own.

Individuals have emerged from the groups and coped and excelled and now they run an independent state but the cost to the groups has been great, perhaps too great.

What is happening now? Emergence of the modern Melanesia

The Melanesian response was to meet the challenge and acquire the skills needed to become effective in the large-scale society. As stated above individuals from groups all over the land emerged to acquire the skills needed, first to cope with the large-scale society and then in a very short period of time to run it, i.e. as it is now known, the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. Tribesmen became literate, educated, and skilled. They participated and then controlled dozens of new institutions not present in the small-scale societies from whence they came. These included schools, churches, government departments, courts, companies, clubs, military and police units. In all cases the individuals had to leave the traditional group and interface with the state as individuals. Individuals were citizens of the state, all with the same rights guaranteed by the constitution irrespective of what group, what language, what tribe, what village, what gender they were.

Weakening of the Land Group

The irony of this situation is that, the more that capable individuals left the group to run the state, the weaker the group became. The group became weak at the very time that it was facing very difficult and different situations brought about by the need for the group to relate to the modern economy of the state. The most obvious example is the impact on the group of attempts to alienate land or land based resources like minerals and timber. But it is equally relevant to talk about the impact on law and order of the breakdown of traditional authority of the land group. When traditional leaders are unable or unwilling to control their members the impact on law and order for the greater community of the state is disastrous. This is the situation now in the towns where little or no traditional controls are in place.

A further impact of the brain drain from the village is that at the very time that the traditional wisdom needs to be converted to the literate medium the persons best placed to help are not at home but away in the towns. A remedy to this is suggested below.

Thus one of the problems facing the state today is that the very building block of a Melanesian state should be the land group and not only the individual and yet all activities set up by the colonial presence bases the building of the state on the individual members.

Melanesians and Business

Control of the economy is another matter. On the political side the fiscal controls of a free market economy are vested with the state and as such are controlled by nationals, both politicians and bureaucrats. However there are many elements of a free market economy that are controlled by "market forces" and these forces are part and parcel of the international trading community and are not controllable by the actions of any one government or state however independent. Many countries form groups to try to influence these forces, sometimes with some success. These range from cartels like OPEC for oil, to international commodity agreements (coffee, cocoa, copper), to tariff agreements (GATT and PACTRA) etc. Most of these are out of control at the moment and the terms of trade over the last two decades have gone against developing countries as producers of commodities. The non-free-market economies or central economies controlled by the state as in the communist countries have been dismal failures with wealthy states not able to adequately feed themselves let alone provide consumer items. These countries are in the process today of undergoing revolutionary changes towards democracy and free-market economies with mixed results.

Ownership of actual businesses and companies in the Papua New Guinea economy is still heavily weighted in favour of foreigners. There are many reasons for this. Upon gaining independence there was a definite move to transfer businesses based on land over to the traditional landowners by means of the Plantations Acquisition Scheme. This was successful to a large extent in the Highlands where a couple of good seasons of high coffee prices enabled groups to pay off bank loans. Copra and cocoa plantations were not so easily paid off. Many were divided up and returned to the traditional owners who were by then land short.

Business is a lot more than ownership. Business requires capital, knowhow, and very hard work. It requires that management decisions are made on business terms and not on terms dictated by politics or by the need to keep relatives happy. In this regard Papua New Guinea nationals have a fairly poor track record. There is no short cut to success in business and it is going to take time before a business class emerges in Papua New Guinea.

Some constraints to business come from group obligations. This is particularly so if the business is based on land which is group owned. There are a many different examples of business activities that try to accommodate the group round the country. A detailed study would be needed to speak with any authority to say that there is one particular solution to the problem. One could say that failures are more common than successes. Business groups throughout the nation have been registered in hundreds and have failed in hundreds, yet these were designed supposedly for customary groups.

Experience in the East Sepik shows that many land groups joined forces to form business groups. However this is not a customary grouping as decisions of an economic nature are made by owners and owners in this case means the land group. Business groups had no mechanism to equate input of resources of land and labour with output resulting in withdrawal of one or both by members.

Many 20 ha coffee blocks in the Highlands started off as group businesses but tended to end up as the hard work of individuals. Individuals tended to take them over and run them with some mechanism of satisfying the interests of joint owners. The point is that the group finds it hard to engage in business. Business rewards hard work and hard work is an individual thing. Many businesses require land and land is community or group owned.

Thus we have a dilemma where in traditional Melanesian small-scale society the means of production was jointly owned but it was managed in such a way that an individual gained access by consensus and then flourished or not by the strength of his own hard work. Hard work and individualism in this sense was highly prized. Yet when applied to business in the modern sense hard work and individualism does not guarantee success because of the different nature of the demand placed by modern business on the jointly owned resource. Plantation land or land for buildings is taken out of the traditional group land permanently, unlike garden land in the past. Timber harvests for one generation a resource that took many generations to produce. Can profits provide a replacement for the generations to come?

Emergence of New Identities

Movement of skilled nationals into these new situations has led to the formation of new levels of identity up and beyond the fundamental ethnic or tribal group identity. Some of these are very powerful and indelible. For example, people regard themselves as being members of their province; Sepiks, Chimbus etc. when compared with other people from other provinces. They also consider themselves Papua New Guineans but in their day to day life this tends to be taken for granted. The National Government is there and it is recognized and accepted but it is distant and does not affect people much. It does not take much for people to defy the government. This is preeminently true when it comes to land matters. People are arrogantly secure in the knowledge that they are the owners of their land and any control that the State claims and tries to exercise had better be done in consultation and by consensus with the true "owners". We thus have a state that is still trying to establish its legitimacy in the minds of its members. This was evident for all with eyes to see long before the Bougainville Rebellion.

Transition to a Literate Society

All the official activities of the modern state of Papua New Guinea are based on communication via the written word and in English, an introduced language. All communication in the mini-state was face to face in one of the 850 local languages. Local languages are spoken by groups as small as 100 and as large as 150,000 people. All knowledge and history of the peoples in the past was passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. When peoples of the past made the change from being an oral society to a literate society the changeover was a very demanding period of their history.

The introduction of the alphabet is the most revolutionary, radical and far reaching technological change to impact Papua New Guinea to date. The impact of the alphabet on the exchange of goods and services between people results in the technology of money. In both these phenomena the participants can be, and mostly are removed, from each other in space and time. The writer communicates with people he doesn’t know and may never see. The seller of goods for money empowers the seller to engage in exchanges anytime with people anywhere with people he may never see or get to know. The face-to-face element essential to traditional Melanesian exchanges and management systems is removed. The impact of this removal is enormous

The impact of literacy in Papua New Guinea today is working in some ways to destroy the traditional societies. The traditional societies were held together by their stories of the land and the land holding with all the genealogies and history of conflict. All the wisdom of the past in regard to the use of plants of the forest and the garden has been passed on for thousands of years. Today this is all under stress in the modern society. Gifted people are taken out of the village context. This means that less gifted people will have to assume the task of conserving the stories and wisdom of the past unless the new technologies of writing and electronic communication are employed by the group to record its history.

The analysis so far:

Table No. 1: Comparison of small-scale and large-scale societies.





1 Area

Up to a few thousand hectares.

Many thousands up to millions of hectares.

2 Population

From less than 100 to up to a few hundred individuals.

Hundreds of thousands up to a few million individuals.



Made up of a number of land groups whose membership is based on kinship i.e. relationship based on blood, marriage or adoption.


Every individual within the borders is a citizen either automatic or naturalized. Some foreigners also resident but not citizens.


Hundreds of distinct, ethnically different, groups with separate languages; majority Melanesian race, some Polynesian.


Intermarriage between groups becoming very common. Other races also present.

Land holding

Land held by groups of relatives, land groups or clans. Land is the basis of all wealth.

All land, sea and air space inside national borders under the "control" of the State as right of eminent domain. Land is no longer the only basis of wealth.


Particularist. What is good for the group is good.

Rule by custom.

Universalist, Christian.

Rule by constitutional and statute law and non-conflicting custom.


Family, food, work, safety, housing, burial guaranteed by group.

State attempts to provide work and security but presently basically relies on village based land groups for welfare. State cannot guarantee work or social security.



Guided egalitarian; leaders chosen by consensus.

Democratic; leaders chosen by adult citizens in free elections.



Responsibility of all members.

Adult males bear arms.

Both internal and external security is responsibility of the State. Only police and army are legally armed.


Relate to all aspects of survival of the group, past, present, and future.

No distinction between sacred and secular.

Sacred cults mainly Christian.

Secular cults related to new associations such as army, parliament, university, service and sporting groups etc.


Subsistence sufficiency;

Some trade for valuables and prestige. Some trade for food e.g. Hiri

Group owns resources.

Specialization; work for cash and cash exchanged for goods. Internal and external trade essential. Individual and company ownership of private property. World markets.



1 Present

Face-to-face for everything within the group, with other groups, and over time.

No writing and no literacy

Some face to face but mostly by writing and mass media especially electronic. Increasing reliance on literacy.

2 Past


History is handed down from generation to generation (oral tradition)

All knowledge passed on by word of mouth supported by dance, drama, carvings, buildings, ground marks.

History is produced by accumulation of documents and research into past, study of oral traditions, archaeology and anthropology recorded for the future.


3 Physical

Limited opportunity for travel because of terrain, hostilities, limited technologies, and language barriers.

Travel possible throughout the entire nation and overseas by roads, ships and aircraft.

Development of common languages such as English, Pidgin and Motu.



Ancient by many thousands of years. Very successful and very conservative.

Nation states of the world in modern form are very recent being only up to a few hundred years old.

Independent State of Papua New Guinea began in 1975. Commonwealth of Australia began in 1901.

Papua New Guinea: How to roll 30,000 mini-states into one?

The following diagram summarises in a simplified form some of the most important ingredients in the continuing evolution of the nation state, Papua New Guinea. The first people to come to Meganesia (Australia – New Guinea) arrived about 50,000 years ago and populated the entire country. These people were hunter-gatherers. Another wave of migration took place during the last ice age round 11,000 years ago. About the same time agriculture was invented in many parts of the world including the island of New Guinea. Scholars still debate about the degree that agriculture was independently invented here or imported by farmer immigrants. Certainly many plants were domesticated here including the plant that produces the greatest annual tonnage of any crop in the world, sugarcane.

A combination of factors has led to extraordinary diversification. Firstly the ecology of the country is so diverse and being isolated from the Asian mainland a great number of endemic species developed here. The small bands of hunter-gatherers of about 30 people gradually gave way to the larger groupings of settled agriculturalists who could build up into larger social groupings of up to four hundred before in their own turn splitting into smaller groups. These groups occupied every corner of the diverse and rugged ecosystem which in itself imposed isolation.

Pre-metal technology was democratic in the sense that no one could control the supply of weapons material and every skilled male from any group was a match for any other equivalent from another group. No group could dominate other groups.

These factors led to development of extraordinary ethnic diversity resulting in 850 languages and proliferation of groups occupying and controlling their land against all comers. These for all intents and purposes were akin to mini-states and there must have been about 30,000 taking all sorts of forms sizes, relations to other groups and relations to their environment.

These mini-states, the land holding groups, constitute the building blocks of Papua New Guinea today. One of the main themes of this essay is that the experience gained during thousands of years of management of these mini-states means that there is a superabundance of people qualified to manage their own affairs here in Melanesia than perhaps anywhere else on the globe. Experience has shown that since the advent of colonialism and independence the handing over of responsibility to central governments manned by people no more capable than those at home has been a risky business basically leading to weakening and disenfranchisement of the land groups.

The challenge for the future is to find a way to draw on traditional strengths of the land groups and blend these into the emergence of a new form of nation state. This theme will be developed later on in the discussion.

Figure No. 2: Papua New Guinea, 30,000 mini-states rolled into one

Part 2 of this 2 part article begins with
"The modern world is a moving target"

The author of this article Anthony P. Power can be reaced by email at powerap@daltron.com.pg

BUAI project information is available through:
Papua New Guinea Internet Content Project
John Evans

Web Site administration support

  • Development
  • Site news
  • General
  • Philosophy & psychology
  • Religion
  • Social sciences
  • Language
  • Natural sciences
  • Technology (applied science)
  • Arts
  • Literature
  • Geography & history