New Guinea

By Rhett A. Butler [Last update August 8, 2020]

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, is home to one of the last great expanses of tropical rainforest as well as some of the world's most traditional forest dwellers, some of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world (as of 2010, 44 groups in Indonesian Papua are estimated remain uncontacted). The island is also rich with natural resources including timber, minerals, and offshore fisheries and energy deposits.

Today New Guinea is divided into two parts: the independent country of Papua New Guinea (eastern half), and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (the western half formerly known as Irian Jaya).

Papua New Guinea has seen more widespread "development" than the Indonesian part of the island, although the average citizen remains poor. Most Papuans are part of the informal economy, living off subsistent activities. The dominant industries are extraction-based (logging, mining, and increasingly, industrial agriculture).

Quick Facts on New Guinea

  • Population: 7.1 million
  • First human habitation: 40,000-60,000 years before present
  • Languages: 1073 (826 PNG, 257 Indonesian Papua, 12 overlapping)
  • European colonization: First contact came in the 16th century; first European claim was in 1828 when the Netherlands claimed the western half of the island as Netherlands New Guinea; Germany and Britain established claims shortly thereafter. For the first half of the 20th century Australia and the Dutch ruled the two halves of New Guinea.
  • Indonesian Colonization/Independence: The Dutch handed Papua over to the U.N. in 1962, Indonesia took the territory in 1963. Australia granted independence to the half it controlled in 1975.
  • Land area: 786,000 sq km (303,500 sq mi)
  • Length: more than 1600 km
  • Highest point: Puncak Jaya (4,884 meters - 16,023 feet) in Papua
  • Biomes/ecosystems: glacial (permanent equatorial glaciers), alpine tundra, savanna, montane and lowland rainforest, mangroves, wetlands, lake and river ecosystems, seagrasses, and coral reefs
  • Biodiversity: Despite covering less than 0.5 percent of Earth's surface, New Guinea is estimated to contain 5-10 percent of global biodiversity. New Guinea's species are characteristic of Australia rather than Asia due to its historical links to the Australian land mass (when sea levels fall, New Guinea is connected to Australia).
Forest cover data for New Guinea

Forest cover in New Guinea

According to Hansen / WRI 2020, the Indonesia-controlled part of New Guinea accounts for about 54% of the island's primary forest and about 51% of the island's total tree cover. If the adjacent islands of Bougainville, East New Britain, Manus, New Ireland, and West New Britain are included as part of New Guinea, then the Indonesian share falls to 50.5% and 48%, respectively.

New Guinea, including adjacent PNG islands primary forest other tree cover forest extent_2020_ha
Papua New Guinea31,863,04310,011,41841,874,461
Indonesian Papuan provinces32,564,2355,919,06638,483,301


New Guinea island primary forest other tree cover forest extent_2020_ha
Papua New Guinea28,080,7858,555,70136,636,486
Indonesian Papuan provinces32,564,2355,919,06638,483,301


Environmental issues in New Guinea

New Guinea's rainforests are being logged, cleared, and converted at a rapid rate due to timber extraction, subsistence agriculture, and expansion of industrial agriculture. Between 1972 and 2002 PNG lost more than 5 million hectares of forest, trailing only Brazil and Indonesia among tropical countries.

Since 2002, the island as a whole last 1.15 million ha of primary forest, representing 1.9 percent of its extent in that year. PNG accounted for 53% of overall tree cover loss between 2002 and 2019.

In both PNG and Indonesian Papua, deforestation typically begins with selective logging operations. Once valuable timber is extracted from an area, the forest tract is more likely to be coverted for industrial plantations.

Water pollution from mining is also a concern in New Guinea.

Plant diversity in New Guinea

According to Middleton et al 2019, the Indonesian portion of New Guinea and the Maluku Islands have 9,518 species of vascular plants, of which 4,380 -- or 46% -- are endemic. 465 "new" species of plants were described between 2011 and 2017.

New Guinea itself is estimated to have 13,634 plant species, more than any other island. Papua New Guinea has 10,973 described species, while Indonesian New Guinea (Papua Barat and Papua provinces) has 7,616.

Dani man in traditional warrior dress

A river in West Papua

Sulfur-crested cockatoo

Common crowned pigeon

Frog in the Arfak Mountains of West Papua

Schoenherr's blue weevil

Multicolored katydid

Red and green katydid

Northern Cassowary

Rainforest in the Arfak Mountains

Palm cockatoo

Red-Eyed Bush Crocodile Skink

Dani man starting a fire with fiber and kindle

Sentani bark paintings

Traditional wood and bark hut build by the Mouley clan

Female Eclectus Parrot

Dani elder in traditional costume

Male Eclectus Parrot


More images at the New Guinea slideshow


Report: Forest-razing biomass plant in Indonesia got millions in green funds (02 Jun 2023 01:14:13 +0000)
- An Indonesian oil and gas company is using government money to clear rainforest for a biomass power plant, according to a new report.
- The project has received a total of $9.4 million from two Ministry of Finance agencies, including one tasked with managing environmental protection funds from international donors.
- Criticism of Medco’s activities reflects a broader debate over whether clear-cutting rainforest can ever be considered sustainable, even when done in the name of transitioning a major coal-producing country away from fossil fuels.

Palm oil firm hit by mass permit revocation still clearing forest in Indonesia (22 Feb 2022 09:35:46 +0000)
- An Indonesian palm oil company stripped of its permit at the start of the year has since been actively clearing forest in its concession.
- PT Permata Nusa Mandiri was among 137 palm oil firms whose permits were revoked by the environment ministry on Jan. 6, but went on to bulldoze more than 50 hectares of rainforest since then.
- Environmental activists and local Indigenous communities have long opposed the company’s presence in Papua province, but the questionable legality of the government’s permit revocations means the firm could still be allowed to continue operating.
- The land clearance is taking place in the Jalan Korea area, a popular birdwatching and tourism destination.

Podcast: Protecting New Guinea’s forests with birds-of-paradise and ecotourism (16 Feb 2022 18:11:49 +0000)
- The island of New Guinea is home to 44 species of unique birds-of-paradise that are found nowhere else on Earth.
- The EcoNusa Foundation in Indonesia and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have partnered on a campaign called “defending paradise,” using the birds as ambassadors for the island’s biodiversity and communities.
- Home to the third-largest tract of tropical rainforest in the world, of which 80% is still intact, New Guinea is in a unique position to conserve its forest cover as part of an economy that serves its local inhabitants, rather than extracting from and deforesting these communities.
- For this episode of Mongabay Explores, we interview Bustar Maitar, founder and CEO of the EcoNusa Foundation, and Edwin Scholes, head of the Birds-of-Paradise Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Podcast: ‘Carbon cowboys’ and illegal logging (01 Feb 2022 11:07:04 +0000)
- Papua New Guinea has been the world’s largest tropical timber exporter since 2014. More than 70% of the timber produced in the country is considered illegal.
- Despite two government inquiries finding the majority of land leases on which logging occurs to be illegal, these land leases still remain in force today.
- While carbon trading has been touted as a solution, activists, journalists and even a provincial governor have expressed concerns over its economic benefits and the continued loss of customary land rights.
- For this episode of Mongabay Explores we interview Gary Juffa, governor of Oro province in Papua New Guinea, and investigative journalist, Rachel Donald.

Podcast: Exploring New Guinea’s extraordinary natural and cultural richness (05 Jan 2022 21:04:40 +0000)
- New Guinea is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Making up less than 0.5% of the world’s landmass, it is estimated to contain as much as 10% of global biodiversity.
- The dense mountainous region creates barriers to development and conservation alike, but has contributed to preserving 80% of the island’s forest cover which still remains intact.
- However, experts are worried that extractive industries threaten not just its vast biodiversity but the human knowledge, culture, and livelihood of its original inhabitants, which represent more than 1,000 different languages across the island.
- Mongabay Explores is an episodic podcast series exploring unique people, places, and stories from around the globe in-depth. You may be familiar with our previous seasons on “The Great Salamander Pandemic,” and “Sumatra.”

Indonesia’s three most consequential forestry stories of 2021 (24 Dec 2021 13:55:46 +0000)
- 2021 marked an inflection point for the fate of Indonesia’s rainforests, the largest expanse outside the Amazon and the Congo Basin.
- The year started out with news of a record drop in the deforestation rate in 2020, which the government attributed to its policies but which some observers say was due more to outside factors such as the pandemic.
- This was also the year that a moratorium on issuing licenses for new oil palm plantations came to an end, with experts warning of an impending wave of forest clearing now that the policy has expired.
- Land conflicts pitting local and Indigenous communities against agribusiness companies and developers saw an increase despite the pandemic-driven economic slowdown, with observers pointing to a lack of effective conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Governor rails against ‘bioterrorists,’ ‘carbon cowboys’ destroying PNG’s forests (07 Dec 2021 14:26:58 +0000)
- Gary Juffa, governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro province, is one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the logging industry.
- Juffa said he’s had to resort to the courts to force out three logging firms operating in his province, and called on the international community to fight illegal loggers in PNG.
- While critical about the slow pace of global deforestation agreements, Juffa said he’s optimistic about the possibilities of carbon finance for his country; other PNG activists are more skeptical.

Deforestation threatens tree kangaroo habitat in Papua New Guinea (14 Oct 2021 11:18:56 +0000)
- A proposed conservation area in northwestern Papua New Guinea has experienced a substantial surge in deforestation-related alerts, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland.
- The still-unofficial Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area is home to critically endangered tree kangaroo species, along with a host of other biodiversity.
- In May 2021, communities voiced concern about road construction that was approaching the boundaries of the proposed conservation area and that the intended target may have been high-value timber species found within the region’s forests.
- Investment in local communities and the protection of the forests that these communities provide have led to an apparent rise in tree kangaroo populations, but logging and other potentially destructive land uses such as conversion to large-scale agriculture remain threats in the Torricellis and throughout Papua New Guinea.

Hidden camera footage exposes bribery for palm oil in Papua New Guinea (08 Oct 2021 20:05:45 +0000)
- Palm oil executives were caught on camera admitting to bribery in Papua New Guinea in an investigation by Global Witness.
- The company’s Malaysian CEO also described a tax evasion scheme involving palm oil exports to India.

New Zealand developer denies key role in giant palm oil project in Indonesia (27 Sep 2021 18:32:48 +0000)
- A decade ago, Indonesian officials earmarked an area of rainforest in Papua province to become the world’s largest oil palm plantation.
- The entire project was initially controlled by a mysterious company known as the Menara Group, but other investors soon entered the scene. Nearly half the project is now in the hands of a New Zealand property developer named Neville Mahon and his Indonesian partners, the well-connected Rumangkang family, corporate records show, although Mahon has denied major involvement.
- A new article by the New Zealand-based news site Newsroom, re-published here by Mongabay, homes in on Mahon’s role in the project, which if fully developed would release an amount of carbon equivalent to Belgium’s annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Extinction of Indigenous languages leads to loss of exclusive knowledge about medicinal plants (20 Sep 2021 16:25:54 +0000)
- A study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland shows that a large proportion of existing medicinal plant knowledge is linked to threatened Indigenous languages. In a regional study on the Amazon, New Guinea and North America, researchers concluded that 75% of medicinal plant uses are known in only one language.
- The study evaluated 645 plant species in the northwestern Amazon and their medicinal uses, according to the oral tradition of 37 languages. It found that 91% of this knowledge exists in a single language, and that the extinction of that language implies the loss of the medicinal knowledge as well.
- In Brazil, Indigenous schools hold an important role in preserving languages alongside cataloguing and revitalization projects like those held by the Karitiana people in Rondônia and the Pataxó in Bahia and Minas Gerais.

Plantations and roads strip away Papua’s forests. They’re just getting started (16 Aug 2021 13:41:19 +0000)
- Indonesia’s Papua region, comprising the western half of the island of New Guinea, lost an area of rainforest five times the size of London since 2001, according to a new study.
- Deforestation in Papua has ramped up in the past two decades as companies clear forests to make way for large-scale plantations and the government embarks on a massive push for infrastructure development.
- More forests are set to disappear in the future as the government has allocated millions of hectares of land to be developed into industrial plantations and the development of new roads, exacerbating the risk of deforestation, the study warns.
- The study authors call for giving Indigenous Papuans greater autonomy to manage their forests, given that some communities have been able to maintain their forests in near-pristine condition even though government oversight has largely been absent.

Road construction imperils tree kangaroo recovery in PNG (19 Jul 2021 10:36:38 +0000)
- The Torricelli Mountains of northwestern Papua New Guinea are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including three species of tree kangaroos.
- Recently, construction of a road that could potentially be used by loggers has pushed closer to the border of a proposed conservation area that, if gazetted, would be the country’s second-largest.
- The Tenkile Conservation Alliance, a Papua New Guinean NGO, has worked with communities for around two decades in the Torricellis with the goal of improving the lives of humans and wildlife living in the mountains.
- Now, the group’s leaders fear that the road could jeopardize a tenuous recovery by several of the area’s threatened tree kangaroo species.

Local leaders in Indonesia make forest and peatland protection pledge (15 Jul 2021 14:20:19 +0000)
- Nine districts across three islands in Indonesia have pledged to protect 50% of their forests, peatlands and other “important ecosystems” by 2030.
- The pledge encompasses a total of 5.8 million hectares (14.3 million acres) of forest and 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) of peat — a total area the size of South Carolina.
- The declaration mirrors the 2018 Manokwari Declaration by the governors of Papua and West Papua provinces, who pledged to protect 70% of the forestland in those two provinces.

Helping Papuans protect Indonesia’s last frontier: Q&A with Bustar Maitar (05 Apr 2021 21:00:19 +0000)
- Bustar Maitar’s storied career in environmental activism began in the Indonesian region of Papua, the land of his birth and today the coveted target of extractives and industrial agriculture companies.
- In his time at Greenpeace International, Maitar led a forest conservation campaign that pressured major corporations like Nestlé and Unilever to commit to zero deforestation in their supply chains.
- Maitar’s new venture, the EcoNusa Foundation, brings him back to Papua, where it all began, to push for protecting the forests, waters and other ecosystems of this last pristine frontier in Indonesia.
- In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Maitar talks about bridging international NGOs with local communities, ecotourism as a development model for eastern Indonesia, and the revival of the kewang system of traditional environmental stewardship in the Maluku Islands.