In 1961 Merv Butler and Clair Toohey began their preparation to work as PALMS volunteers in Papua and New Guinea. Since then over 700 others have followed in their footsteps.
As a returned volunteer from Papua New Guinea, I am often surprised at how little most Australians know about this place. Some ignorance of other nations must be expected in such a diverse world, but the historical and contempory significance of PNG to Australia makes the knowledge gap less excusable. This article is too short to adequately describe PNG, but by introducing some interesting facts, I hope it sparks some interest and possibly dispels some myths.
PNG is one of the most ecologically diverse nations on earth and is home to more varieties of kingfishers, parrots, pigeons and reef fish than anywhere else in the world.
The rainforests and reefs of PNG are very closely connected with those of Northern Australia. Any damage done to one may significantly affect the other.
Papua and New Guinea were territories administered by Australia until 1975, when PNG became the only nation to have gained independence from Australia.
Papua New Guineans played a vital role in protecting Australia and Australians during the battle of Kokoda and other battles during World War II.
PNG is the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 languages spoken. This represents over 12% of the world’s languages.
The most common language is Tok Pisin or Pidgin. A number of Pidgin words and expressions are derived from Australian slang.
PNG and Australia are the two largest South Pacific nations with populations of 6 million and 21 million respectively. New Zealand is third.
PNG’s mainland is only 6km from Australia’s northern-most island, Boigu Island. Strong links between Papuans and Torres Strait Islanders have existed for thousands of years.
Australia and PNG’s trade relationship is worth at least $1 billion in each direction, though many of PNG’s industries are owned and managed by Australian companies.
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s second largest aid recipient after Indonesia.
PNG’s Mt Wilhelm is more than twice the height of Australia’s Mt Kosciusko. Despite its tropical position, it occasionally sees snow.
PNG’s rugged terrain makes it difficult to travel except by air, canoe or foot. Tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, flooding and landslides can further complicate travel.
From 2001 to 2004, PNG’s Manus Island hosted an Australian immigration detention centre. In its final year, it was run at a cost of $250,000 per month to host a single refugee.
In 2009, PNG was home to 10,000 asylum seekers; Australia was home to just 9,900.
Our first two volunteers worked in Papua and New Guinea and PNG has hosted more Palms volunteers than any other country.
We have also supported Fair Trade in PNG for almost 30 years, first with New Guinea Arts and then The Fair Trade Coffee Company.