With foresight, PNG can be a force of nature
PNG's corruption is systemic & worsening

Population: 'Mama, papa na faivpela pikinini'


LAE – Census data in Papua New Guinea have always been considered less a reflection of ground truth and more a best approximation based on available reported figures from household interviews.

(Rule of Thumb: Always have the salt handy.)

Rather than arguing theoretical knowledge, I'll make an educated guestimate of what's likely in terms of rural population growth rates.

These are based on recent observations, which I hope may be disproved (or my math and stats totally destroyed by more astute and learned commentators).

Often desktop studies are scoffed at even when they are designed to be carefully adjusted within error bounds: a fact to which most honest statisticians, economists and geographers will attest.

Even a rudimentary exercise shows the potential for growth in our highly fecund population.

If families have three kids, I guess the child-bearing women probably had about five or six pregnancies during their productive years.

As a national average for household sizes the number seven (i.e., strictly PNG’s 'nuclear family') has been a consistent finding on a number of recent baseline surveys that my teams have conducted for project work.

Last month I asked a focus group (n=25) of young couple families to describe what a common household size would be in that part (two urban-village communities) of the Rai Coast.

The surprisingly unanimously agreed answer was 'mama, papa na faivpela pikinini'.

That may be circumstantial evidence but it does fit with National Statistics Office estimates from Census 2011 as the national average household size.

Suppose, in say 15 years (2037), those 25 families have seven members each, that's 175 people.

At a gender balance of about two males to three females, say that three females from each household started their own families at around 15+ years age, not unusual in PNG rural scenarios.

Then after another 10 years (2047) we have 75 new households with five new members each, a total of 375 more humans 25 years from now.

Maybe five years after them the male youth catch up with their sisters and start their own families (generally males mate later). That's another 50 new households with maybe five new members each. Another 250 in 30 years.

Then, from the time I met them last month, to about 30 years in the future (within PNG average life expectancy) that small group I surveyed potentially has a total household population of 800 members.

Suppose those parents and I live to over 65 years of age, then that sample household population may have had a 16-fold increase during our lifetime.

If five kids for every couple is an expected objective, then that small sample of  Rai Coast community may go from 25 households (couples) with 50 members to 150 households with 800 members in 30 years.

Even if we say there's a 20% mortality rate, that's still 640 people, for a growth rate of 1,180% in 30 years, or 39.33% annual growth rate (annual population growth rate = [(640-50)/50 x 100]÷30 = 39.33%.

That's scary stuff, a doubling time (Rule of 70) of 1.8 years.

However, I applied the national average household size to this community because that's the size that they gave me when asked about their own observations and expectations.

That's only a microcosm of PNG so it may not be very applicable to other communities in the country, let alone for the national average.

However, if our national population growth rate is even one-tenth of that small community household estimate (3.933% pa), then doubling time is 17.8 years.

If our annual growth rate is one-fifteenth (2.622% pa) of that estimate then our population will double in 26.7 years.

That last figure appears in line with previous estimates from census data and perhaps demonstrates how desktop analysis with the best of intentions may still go astray.

Nevertheless, from using the small community example it's reasonable to suggest that maybe we should ‘expect the best but plan for the worst’ until we obtain direct and incontrovertible evidence of the actual size of our population.

Editor’s note: In 1974, on behalf of the NBC, I presented a paper to a UN population conference in Singapore when the doubling period was 18 years. The PNG population at that time, if my recall is reliable (I am away from home and my papers), was three million – KJ


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Out of curiousity I dragged out copies of my patrol reports from Western Highlands and Western, two contrasting regions, and checked the census figures and the rates of natural increase.

When we collected census data on patrol we were required to calculate the death and birth rates to produce the natural increase figure for the census division.

In 1967 I did a very long patrol (172 days) in the North West Wahgi Census Division. The birth rate was 5.9/100 and the death rate was 2.7/100 giving a natural increase of 3.2/100.

In 1970 I did a 22 day patrol in the East Awin Census Division, a remote area in the Elevala River region north of Kiunga. The birth rate was 4.01/100, the death rate was 2.25/100 giving a natural increase of 1.76/100.

What strikes me now is the high birth rate in the North West Wahgi Census Division compared to the one in the East Awin Census Division.

I can explain this disparity by pointing to the ready access of people in the North West Wahgi to good medical services compared to the East Awin Census Division where there were no medical services at all. Even the missionaries had avoided the area.

Looking at other patrol reports from both regions seems to confirm the trend of high birth rates in the highlands and low birth rates in lowlands.

It then occurred to me that this might help explain what's going on with the apparent population explosion in PNG.

It's driven by Highlanders.

The highland/lowland distinction doesn't exist any more because Highlanders are everywhere.

However, my anecdotal observations during social mapping work suggest that in lowland villages where highlanders haven't infiltrated, the populations seem quite stable while up in the highlands the burgeoning populations are very evident.

What does this mean?

I'm not sure.

Mandatory vasectomies for highland men after they've fathered two or three kids?

Arthur Williams

Some sobering reports with two from the United Nations.

I noted the inequality stats for my UK, your Oz but especially USA which has just announced an opaque $845 billion (not including any off budget or 'black ops') to be spent on armaments to partially replace gifts to Ukraine while at same time homelessness in many of USA cities is at epidemic proportions.

20210913 A report from Brown University's Costs of War Project www.businessinsider.com

It found that the price tag for the global war on terror stands at over $8 trillion.
The report attributes $2.3 trillion to the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone, $2.1 trillion to the Iraq and Syria war zone
$355 billion to other war zones.

The war on terror has claimed up to 929,000 lives, including over 7,000 US service members and at least 387,072 civilians, the report said:

"What have we truly accomplished in 20 years of post 9/11 wars, and at what price?"

"Dr Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project, said in a statement on the new report.
"Twenty years from now, we'll still be reckoning with the high societal costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – long after US forces are gone."

Inequality kills by Oxfam

That's the title of a recent report published by Oxfam which found that during the first two years of the pandemic inequality contributed to the death of at least 21,000 people each day, or one person every four seconds.

Over the course of those four seconds, the world’s 10 richest people were making roughly $60,000, or $1.3 billion a day.

Overall, 160 million more people fell into poverty since the start of the global health emergency while the richest 10 billionaires more than doubled their wealth to an astounding $1.5 trillion.

Shares of National Income by Country (169)

Inequality (rounded to whole number)

Country: Czech...Ukraine...UK......OZ.....USA.........PNG.....S Africa

Ranking: #169....#161.........#146......#107....#71.........#63........#1


Top 10%......................29%....32%.........36%.....34%.......45%.....47%.....55%
Top 1%..........................10%.....9%............13%......13%........19%.....17%......22%

Inequality – Bridging the Divide www.un.org/en/un75/inequality-bridging-divide

Despite progress in some regions, income and wealth are increasingly concentrated at the top.
An Oxfam report shows that in the 10 years since the financial crisis, the number of billionaires has nearly doubled, and the fortunes of the world’s super-rich have reached record levels. In 2018, the 26 richest people in the world held as much wealth as half of the global population (the 3.8 billion poorest people), down from 43 people the year before.

This matters because rapid rises in incomes at the top are driving and exacerbating within country income inequality. From 1990 to 2015, the share of income going to the top 1 per cent of the global population increased in 46 out of 57 countries with data. Meanwhile, in more than half of the 92 countries with data, the bottom 40 per cent receive less than 25 per cent of overall income.

The good news


'9.7 billion on Earth by 2050, but growth rate slowing, says new UN population report'

Not so good as it concludes: 'Yet expected to top 11 billion by 2099'.

Michael Dom

Reminded by Paul and Phil's stories on cultural controls, I've thought of a few population influencing factors.

A number of negative/positive sociocultural elements have a bearing on our population growth too, and these are from my general observations made in local communities in rural and urban areas.

(1) A long held attitude of men to have multiple partners (other than the cultural practice of polygamy) which does not seem to have lessened but strengthened

(2) An increase in single mothers at rural and urban centres, which also balances out the above

(3) An apparent aim by many couples to have three to five children or more regardless of family planning initiatives

(4) This (above) increases in the rural areas in relation to greater hardship experienced in food and income production, the need for security during tribal warfare which is on the rise not only in the highlands, and otherwise encouraging related policies such as free education

(5) Displacement of entire communities by environmental disasters and social disturbance e.g., Manam refugees, Tami Islanders, earthquake migrants and tribal war refugees in a number of other locations

(6) A suspected younger age of first pregnancy in girls derived from observing male and female attitudes in remote locations such as Bali Island and Menya (or maybe they were having me on)

(7) Resource developments encouraging movement and increased mating opportunities which would otherwise have been culturally controlled, e.g., Southern Highlands and Hela, Madang Ramu-NiCo, Wafi, 'peace' in AROB,

(8) Continued anecdotal reports of larger family sizes - in particular I know of a few too many multiple partner multiple children families, e.g., divorcees with 5+3 kids + newborn, and parents are still of reproductive age.

(9) And larger family sizes are not as actively discouraged by Christian denominations as we may like to think.

I'll just leave these here.

Frankly, after that note from the NRI I'd like to suggest that it's too far fetched to assume a decline in the growth rate below 40%, based on the last two decades of consistent increases.

So, from 9 million in 2011 to 12.6 million this year, as some others have suggested, may be a more cautious estimate to the true population.

Include, a liberal 20% error then the high value is 15.1 million people.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The desert nomads with whom I worked had a couple of nifty ideas, Paul.

One involved the men's initiation. As part of the process they practised subincision, which involved slicing the underside of the urethra with a sharp stone and then packing it with ash to keep it open until it healed.

When they had intercourse the semen would spill out of the split instead of going into the vagina. It also meant that they had to squat when they pissed but it seemed to keep the numbers down.

I know a couple of whitefellas who were subincised. Nowadays the so-called initiations that occur don't involve subincision nor the deep learning that occurs before the event.

Men who have undergone the modern style of initiation are referred to as microwave watis. A wati is an initiated man.

Subincision was largely abandoned when the young men refused to undergo it. That's roughly when the desert culture fell apart.

The women practiced infanticide, especially if they had twins because they knew that in their harsh environment keeping two children alive was difficult.

They also abstained from intercouse until a child had been weaned, usually around when it was 3 - 4 years old.

They were a patriarchal society and the men controlled all the ritual business. Women's secret business is a modern idea, partly invented by feminist anthropologists.

Women had age rituals but not on a par with the men. As the mythologies explain, the women had once controlled all the ritual business but the men took it off them during the creation period and subsequently kept it to themselves.

Like groups in PNG, the desert nomad men believed that women's menstrual blood was dangerous and kept right away from them during that time.

All a bit brutal but it kept the numbers down, which was crucial in such a stark environment.

Ian Gray

The population of PNG in 2023 is fairly easy to project using the official data available.

I've used the official data from PNG's National Statistical office ( https://www.nso.gov.pg/statistics/population ) and compared it with that of the World Bank ( websitehttps://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.GROW ).

PNG's NSO have published data for 4 censuses (1980, 1990, 2000 and 2011). Over the 31 year period the average population growth rate is 3.0% (in round numbers). Over the more recent data period available (2000 - 2010), population growth accelerated to 3.4% (again in round numbers). As you'd expect.

On this basis PNG's projected population in 2023 will lie between 10.4 million and 10.7 million (long term average growth rate 3% / growth rate from 2000-2011 is 3.4% ).

The higher growth rate is more likely given PNG's increase in GDP, so it's absolutely odds on that PNG's population will be close to 10.7 million (or slightly higher).

Interestingly World Bank is only predicting an average population growth rate of 2% (definitely too low - just have a look at average growth rates in developing countries...).

Using the World Bank numbers would put PNG's 2023 population at 9.2 million (using the NSO base numbers) which is much lower than the NSO projection.

What it means (based on NSO numbers) is that there will be nearly 3.5 million extra people in the country since the last census.

In any country that would be a shock. But if the government planning system has been using the old census numbers to plan and allocate resources, then to put it mildly the PNG government and planners have a lot of hard work ahead to prevent the country moving backwards.

Paul Oates

It's a sad fact of life that humans are apparently unable to keep their numbers regulated to the amount of resources available to maintain a stable population. The notorious 'Four Horsemen' then come and intervene.

Perhaps the First Nations' people of Australia had ways of ensuring against overpopulation? Phil, what methodology did they use?

arthur williams

My wife's grandfather and grandmother were born around 1920. They had four children
Eldest and only son had 8 children and 16 grandchildren
#2 child had 6 children and 18 grandchildren
#3 child had 7 children and 21 grandchildren
#4 child had had 7 children and 40 grandchildren
That is 95 great-grandchildren from the original couple in 100 years.
Just one of those 95, who I know accurately, has produced 13 great-great-grandchildren Many others of the 95 also have extending families. I would say the total must be nearing 200+

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)