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


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.

Global forest loss increased in 2020 (31 Mar 2021 04:01:10 +0000)
- The planet lost an area of tree cover larger than the United Kingdom in 2020, including more than 4.2 million hectares of primary tropical forests, according to data released today by the University of Maryland.
- Tree cover loss rose in both the tropics and temperate regions, but the rate of increase in loss was greatest in primary tropical forests, led by rising deforestation and incidence of fire in the Amazon, Earth’s largest rainforest.
- The data, which is now available on World Resource Institute’s Global Forest Watch, indicate that forest loss remained persistently high in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, but “does not show obvious, systemic shifts in forest loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to WRI.
- Destruction of primary tropical forests, the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, released 2.64 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars.

Palm oil firm Digoel Agri said to clear Papuan forest without Indigenous consent (25 Mar 2021 14:27:40 +0000)
- A palm oil conglomerate has begun clearing the ancestral forests of Indigenous tribes in Indonesia’s Papua region without the locals’ consent, a watchdog group says.
- Subsidiaries of the Digoel Agri group have cleared 64 hectares (158 acres) of forest in the first two months of 2021, according to satellite imagery analyzed by Pusaka, an Indonesian nonprofit.
- Digoel Agri had cleared 164 hectares (405) acres in 2019, before suspending operations for all of last year amid a labor dispute.
- Pusaka alleges that Digoel Agri has failed to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of local Indigenous tribes to operate in the area, which forms part of the Tanah Merah project, slated to become the world’s biggest oil palm plantation.

Current protected areas not enough to save parrots from extinction: Study (29 Jan 2021 15:51:19 +0000)
- Nearly one-third of parrot species are threatened with extinction, and a new study concludes that current protected areas are not sufficient to protect parrot diversity, overlapping with only 10% of the geographic range of all parrot species.
- Agriculture is the main threat to parrots and is especially relevant in the Neotropics, where parrot species richness is highest.
- The northeastern Andes and southeastern Australia are highlighted as two important hotspots for parrot conservation.
- The fate of parrots is largely tied to the fate of forests, as 70% of parrots are forest-dependent. The study concludes that the future of parrots relies on policymaking in specific countries.

California-sized area of forest lost in just 14 years (13 Jan 2021 00:14:01 +0000)
- An area of forest roughly the size of California was cleared across the tropics and subtropics between 2004 and 2017 largely for commercial agriculture, finds a new assessment published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
- The report looks at the state of forests and causes of deforestation in 24 “active deforestation fronts”, which account for over half of all tropical and subtropical deforestation that occurred over the 14-year period. These include nine forest areas in Latin America, eight in Africa, and seven in Asia and Oceania.
- Using five satellite-based datasets, the report finds 43 million hectares (166,000 square miles) of deforestation during the period. Nearly two-thirds of that loss occurred in Latin America.
- The report lays out a series of actions to address deforestation, include policy measures by governments and companies. These range from commodity sourcing policies to recognizing Indigenous and local communities’ land rights.

Rainforests: 11 things to watch in 2021 (01 Jan 2021 12:00:44 +0000)
- 2020 was a rough year for tropical rainforest conservation efforts. So what’s in store for 2021?
- Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler reviews some of 11 key things to watch in the world of rainforests in 2021.
- These include: the post COVID recovery; the transition of power in the U.S.; deforestation in Indonesia; deforestation in Brazil; the effects of the La Niña climate pattern; ongoing destabilization of tropical forests; government to government carbon deals; data that will allow better assessment of the impact of COVID on tropical forests; companies incorporating forest-risk into decision-making; ongoing violence against environmental defenders; and whether international policy meetings can get back on track.

How the pandemic impacted rainforests in 2020: a year in review (28 Dec 2020 19:25:42 +0000)
- 2020 was supposed to be a make-or-break year for tropical forests. It was the year when global leaders were scheduled to come together to assess the past decade’s progress and set the climate and biodiversity agendas for the next decade. These included emissions reductions targets, government procurement policies and corporate zero-deforestation commitments, and goals to set aside protected areas and restore degraded lands.
- COVID-19 upended everything: Nowhere — not even tropical rainforests — escaped the effects of the global pandemic. Conservation was particularly hard in tropical countries.
- 2019’s worst trends for forests mostly continued through the pandemic including widespread forest fires, rising commodity prices, increasing repression and violence against environmental defenders, and new laws and policies in Brazil and Indonesia that undermine forest conservation.
- We don’t yet have numbers on the degree to which the pandemic affected deforestation, because it generally takes several months to process that data. That being said, there are reasons to suspect that 2020’s forest loss will again be substantial.

Study revealing New Guinea’s plant life ‘first step’ toward protection (25 Aug 2020 12:55:15 +0000)
- A recent study in the journal Nature found that New Guinea has more plant species than any other island on Earth.
- The island has more than 13,000 species of plants, more than two-thirds of which live only in New Guinea.
- The island’s forests are relatively intact, and researchers say the list of species is a step toward protecting them from the looming threats of large-scale agriculture, logging and road building.

Why I stand for my tribe’s forest: It gives us food, culture, and life (commentary) (08 Aug 2020 16:21:19 +0000)
- For the occasion of International Indigenous Peoples Day August 9, 2020, Arkilaus Kladit, a member of the Knasaimos-Tehit people in South Sorong Regency in West Papua Province, Indonesia, writes about the importance of his tribe’s customary forests.
- Arkilaus, who is a member of the Knasaimos Indigenous Peoples Council, describes his tribe’s long struggle to secure recognition of his tribe’s customary lands by the Indonesian government.
- Arkilaus explains how the Knasaimos-Tehit people are dependent on forests for food, community resilience, and cultural significance.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

New Guinea has the most plant species of any island (05 Aug 2020 11:02:16 +0000)
- New Guinea is the planet’s most speciose island when it comes to plants, reports a comprehensive assessment of vascular plant species published in the journal Nature.
- The research concludes New Guinea has 13,634 species of plants from 1742 genera and 264 families. That gives New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, the highest plant diversity of any island on Earth, surpassing Madagascar (11,832 species), Borneo (11,165 species), and Sumatra (8,391 species).
- New Guinea’s flora is also highly unique. The study finds that more than two-thirds of its plants are endemic, meaning they are only found on the island.
- But time may be running short for New Guinea’s biodiversity, since 2002 the island lost 1.15 million hectares of primary forest and nearly 2 million hectares of total tree cover. New Guinea’s high degree of endemism makes its flora particularly vulnerable.

Photos: In southern Papua, navigating an alien world built on palm oil (22 Jul 2020 01:03:09 +0000)
- In June 2019, photographer Albertus Vembrianto spent three weeks on assignment in the southern lowlands of Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, for Mongabay and The Gecko Project. He traveled through the villages of Indigenous Papuans whose land had been taken over by palm oil conglomerates.
- A decade ago, the Indonesian government promoted investment by plantation firms in this region with a vision of turning it into a major agribusiness hub. Today, Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, but many Papuans have lost their land and are struggling to acclimatize to a very new world, with their traditional food sources dwindling.
- Albertus’s photos were featured in an investigation into the operations of one of the these companies, the Korindo Group, recently published by The Gecko Project and Mongabay in collaboration with the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa and 101 East, Al Jazeera’s Asia-Pacific current affairs program.
- In this photo essay, Albertus, who is Indonesian, writes about his experience reporting in Papua.

‘In the plantations there is hunger and loneliness’: The cultural dimensions of food insecurity in Papua (commentary) (14 Jul 2020 07:05:05 +0000)
- Sophie Chao is an anthropologist who has spent years studying the Marind people of southern Papua.
- As palm oil companies take over their land, the Marind, she writes, are struggling to feed themselves.
- Photographs in this article feature Marind, Mandobo and Auyu tribespeople in southern Papua and were taken by Albertus Vembrianto.

How we calculated Korindo’s revenues from clearing Papuan rainforest (29 Jun 2020 01:14:20 +0000)
- A panel convened by the Forest Stewardship Council calculated that Korindo had deprived indigenous communities in Indonesia’s Papua province of $300 million by underpaying for the timber harvested from their lands in the decade from 2007.
- Korindo dismissed the figure as “pure fantasy” on the grounds that the panel had based its calculations on global market prices, when Korindo actually sold the timber locally. Korindo claimed it had made a loss on the logging operations as it cleared land for plantations.
- Based on our own calculation, we estimate that since the turn of the century, Korindo exported products worth $320 million using timber harvested as it cleared the rainforest for plantations in Papua.

The Consultant: Why did a palm oil conglomerate pay $22m to an unnamed ‘expert’ in Papua? (25 Jun 2020 09:47:00 +0000)
- In a year-long investigation with The Gecko Project, the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism-Newstapa and Al Jazeera, Mongabay traced a $22 million “consultancy” payment connected to a major land deal in Indonesia’s Papua province.
- It took us from South Korea and Singapore to the heart of the largest rainforest left in Asia, to find out how the payment helped make the Korindo Group one of the largest oil palm producers in the region.
- Photography by Albertus Vembrianto.

World Rainforest Day: The world’s great rainforests (22 Jun 2020 00:10:59 +0000)
- June 22 is World Rainforest Day, which is a “collaborative effort to raise awareness and encourage action to protect the world’s rainforests”, according to Rainforest Partnership, which founded the event.
- In recognition of World Rainforest Day, this post highlights the world’s ten largest tropical rainforests: the Amazon, the Congo, New Guinea and Australia, Sundaland, Indo-Burma, Mesoamerica, Wallacea, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, the Atlantic forest, and the Choco.
- Tropical rainforests have an outsized role in the world, containing the highest concentration of species, storing more carbon in aggregate than any other terrestrial ecosystem, and supporting most of the planet’s “uncontacted” peoples.
- Despite their importance however, deforestation in the world’s tropical forests has remained persistently high since the 1980s. Primary tropical forests have been destroyed at a rate of 3.2 million hectares a year since 2002.