For the people of Papua New Guinea, sharing land is simply a fact of life.
Sitting just below the equator, Papua New Guinea owns the eastern half of the island of New Guinea plus several hundred islands offshore. The great island’s western half belongs to Indonesia.
But both countries win. The entire mainland is flush with emerald tropical forests, towering mountain ranges, and deep valleys. Divers seek out the rich coral reefs in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay, which are world-renowned for their diversity and rarity.
Tradition in Papua New Guinea dictates that no one person can own property outright. Instead, all land is held and used communally, so everyone gets access to land and forest for gardening, hunting, and other subsistence needs.
EXPLORE: In April 2009, scientists traveled to the Nakanai Mountains of East New Britain and worked with local communities to document the wildlife there. Learn more about the expedition.
Only a fraction of Papua New Guinea’s 5.8 million residents lives along the coast. The majority is scattered throughout the interior, often in isolation amidst tall mountains.
For millennia, the island’s extraordinary wilderness has sustained thousands of unique indigenous communities. Over the last two decades Papua New Guinea’s environment has been much altered by burgeoning population and industry. In the short-term, industrial logging, mining, and other unchecked development have been worrisome. In the long-term, growing populations and converting forests into non-forest lands are poised to be especially problematic.
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After rapid population growth, global climate change may be the second greatest threat to life on and around the island. It has already made an impact. Severe drought conditions have allowed small fires to spread more quickly, and these events are likely to become more frequent. Village health has also been impacted, with increasing incidence of malaria in the highlands. Scientists also predict that rising temperatures and sea levels will put Papua New Guinea’s extensive coral reefs at serious risk. Despite these significant challenges, though, there remains hope and opportunities for conservation.