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February 17, 2010

Migration in Papua New Guinea


The visitor who spends a few days in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, will be impressed with the feelings of open space the city inspires, the modern look of the governmental center at Waigani, and the stores at Boroko. All give the appearance of a thriving and successful capital city. Visits to other coastal cities, such as Lae or Madang, will reinforce this impression of a young nation with bustling city life.

In the Papua New Guinea highlands, the main towns of Goroka, Mount Hagen and Wabag look less "established;" the buildings, with their clapboard walls and tin roofs, have an air of impermanence. Nevertheless, the populace appears adequately fed, housed and clothed and governmental offices boast a constant stream of visitors.

These cities, towns and hinterlands of Papua New Guinea have tasted the benefits and drawbacks of monetarization of their economies. Some inhabitants are participating profitably in the national and world economy. But these cities and towns are not the entirety of Papua New Guinea. In many areas the traditional way of life has not yet been directly affected by economic development.

The people of Papua New Guinea who have been least affected by modernization inhabit the fringes of the central highlands - which run the entire length of the island of New Guinea from west to east. Mostly, they are members of small societies, who, inhabiting remote valleys, avoided contact with the Australian administration until after World War II. These small societies are surrounded by larger, wealthier, neighboring groups. Change in these societies is influenced by the national society and by their more "advanced" neighbors.

Most discussions of social change focus on the effects of the outside world on the home community. New values, technologies and products, as well as money, are introduced into tradition systems either by the arrival of outsiders or by the return of migrants. As significant, if less obvious, are the consequences for the home community of the simple absence of migrant laborers from their home villages or towns.

The Wovan

The Wovan are a group of some 700 people who inhabit the northern fringe of the central highlands of Papua New Guinea. Living in a remote valley formed by a tributary of the Jimi river, they were first contacted by an Australian administration patrol in 1962. They are subsistence horticulturalists, pig herders, and hunters, who cultivate sweet potatoes and taro. They are concentrated in the Arame River valley on the southern fall of the Schrader Mountains but the territory over which they claim dominion extends northward over the main ridge into the vast, sparsely populated forests which extend to the Sepik River flatlands.

First contact with the Australians brought little change to the Wovan. Steel axes had been obtained years before through indigenous trade routes, and the Wovan continued to plant their gardens, conduct their rituals and trade with their neighbors as before. Warfare, which had never been conducted on a large scale, ceased almost immediately, but few men and no women ventured outside their territory.


In 1968, the provincial boundaries were re-drawn and Wovan territory came under the jurisdiction of the Madang Province, more immediately represented by the district office at Simbai just two days' walk away. Agricultural, medical and judicial officials visited Wovan territory. New crops were introduced, broadening and strengthening the Wovan subsistence base. A small coffee nursery was established.

When the Wovan began to venture to the district office at Simbai, they heard of the opportunities for wage labor on coastal plantations. They soon prepared to take advantage of these opportunities, and in 1973, the first Wovan men left Wovan territory on two-year labor contracts. Two years passed and these men returned bearing the treasures of their contract: metal pots, suitcases, and some clothing - highly valued acquisitions. The outside world had come to the Wovan.

Each year more men followed to the plantation. Many who completed their contracts immediately signed on for a further term. In 1978 and 1979, 32 men were absent from their home villages on plantation contracts, a large number for such a small society. Only males are recruited for plantation labor. No employment opportunities exist for Wovan women outside their tribal territory. More significantly, all plantation laborers are drawn from the 16-30 age group. This causes a significant imbalance in the sex ratio in a group of prime reproductive age. (The 32 men absent in 1978-1979 represent 25 percent of the total male population in that age group.)

Men of the 16-30 age group are usually about to marry or have recently married and are responsible for garden clearance and fencing for their wives and children, their aging parents, and their unmarried, co-resident sisters. Since contact, these men are also responsible for the maintenance of pathways through Wovan territory used by government patrols and for the preparation and maintenance of mission gardens and buildings. With their departure, the demands on the time and labor of those remaining in the village increase.

Lack of economic development among the Wovan has meant that brideprices have not suffered from the same inflationary spiral as those of neighboring groups. While initially this might be perceived as beneficial, it has serious consequences. The relatively low brideprices of the Wovan make their young women more attractive to men of neighboring groups while their own lack of cash income makes the young women of those groups inaccessible to Wovan men. The absence of marriageable young Wovan men from the home community further encourages women to marry outside their own communities. Wovan men that do remain at home are less desirable as husbands because they do not possess as many material goods as their counterparts from neighboring groups.

Among the Wovan, then, a situation exists in which the available workforce is depleted by out-migration when demands on that workforce are increasing as a result of government and mission contact. Thus, home or village life becomes less desirable due to increased labor demands without any commensurate increase in material rewards. Wovan men who have not spent time on the plantation frequently comment that they now have less time for hunting than they had before, that they plant smaller gardens, and that present work demands prevent them from accomplishing their goals. They are, they say, tired of village life, and they too will migrate. They perceive their only possibility of economic advancement to be as migrant laborers.

The 48 Wovan men who have served contracts on coastal plantations since 1973 have accounted for 114 man-years of labor lost to the home community. The Wovan, for example, wish to plant coffee and generate income at home. But the withdrawal of men from the home workforce means that less time and energy can be devoted to planting coffee as more time and energy are devoted to the maintenance of subsistence gardens and to roadway and mission maintenance. Given the lack of a money economy and a viable cash crop at home, it becomes increasingly necessary for men to work on coastal labor contracts to meet inflationary brideprices, to compete with men from neighboring groups, and to obtain an income with which to purchase desired prestige goods. The migration pattern, then, becomes a vicious circle which becomes increasingly difficult to break.

The Wovan today are increasingly dependent on the national economy as their expectations of material welfare rise. The national economy, too, is dependent on the Wovan and similar groups to perform agricultural labor on coastal plantations.

Change for the Wovan - change that will allow them to reap benefits from their land and allow them to participate fully in the national economy - is necessary. It is questionable, however, if such change can ever result from labor migration. Further, without direct governmental intervention it is doubtful that the Wovan can break this pattern in time to take advantage of the developing economy of Papua New Guinea.

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