Opening photo: A vivid sunset caps the end of day at Port Moresby’s beautiful Ela Beach. Photo by Christine_Gneh
By Teresa M. Morris
Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu: the names alone conjure images of traditionally dressed indigenous people, unique bird and marine life, vibrant coral reefs, forbidding terrain, and hand-crafted outrigger boats bobbing on the sparkling sea. Truth be told, they’re all that and more.
From its home in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the U.S. embassy serves the three Pacific island nations with a staff of approximately 150 American and locally employed staff representing the Department of State, Department of Defense, USAID, Peace Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Butterflies the size of dinner plates, fantastically plumed birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, and crowned pigeons—New Guinea is home to one out of every 20 species on earth,” said Deputy Chief of Mission Bernie Link. “Climate change, a youthful, burgeoning population, and Melanesia’s rich mineral resources put hard choices in front of political leaders seeking to balance development with sustainability.
Papua New Guinea, nicknamed the “Land of the Unexpected,” occupies the eastern half of the mountainous island of New Guinea as well as an archipelago of more than 600 islands. It rises from the sea on tropical coral atolls and volcanic islands up to rugged, forest-covered mountain peaks that see frost and snow in the winter months. Papua New Guinea claims the highest point in Oceania with Mount Wilhelm, a peak in the Bismarck Range that reaches 14,793 feet at the summit.
Located on the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, Papua New Guinea may experience more than a dozen minor earthquakes in a month, though extensive damage is rare. Volcanic activity remains a constant concern on the island of Rabaul, where two active volcanoes, Mount Tavurvur and Vulcan, buried the town in ash in 1937 and 1994.
The World Wildlife Fund calls Papua New Guinea a mega-diversity hotspot, with unique flora and fauna filling its seas, rain forests, marshes, rivers, lakes, and mountains. For example, eight of the world’s 14 species of tree kangaroo live in Papua New Guinea’s rainforests, 197 frogs have been catalogued with potentially hundreds yet unknown, 33 species of mangroves grow on its coasts, and more than 2,000 species of orchids grow in every microclimate throughout the country.
Papua New Guinea also sits in the “Coral Triangle,” an astonishingly biodiverse marine area with at least 500 species of reef-building corals, 15 of which exist nowhere else in the world, more coral reef fish diversity than any other habitat on the planet, and six of the Earth’s seven marine turtle species.
“The diving here is consistently some of the best in the world. The warm waters abound with marine life, and the reefs are vibrant and alive in a way that eclipses even Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The region also contains hundreds of undersea wrecks dating from World War II (WWII), including an intact B-17,” said General Services Officer and avid scuba diver Larry Dumlao.
Though contact with Europeans and the British began in the 16th century, much of Papua New Guinea remained unknown to the outside world until the mid-20th century when WWII arrived on its shores. American and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) forces battled the Japanese on land, in the sea, and the air over Papua New Guinea, successfully preventing the invasion of Port Moresby. Two American presidents experienced the region’s campaigns. President Richard Nixon was posted to Solomon Islands’ Vella Lavella and Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville and Nissan Island. President John F. Kennedy famously lost PT-109 near Solomon Islands’ Kolombangara Island. Two of President Joe Biden’s uncles served in Papua New Guinea; his uncle Ambrose Finnegan’s fighter plane went down in the coastal waters.
The numerous WWII-era wrecks in the Coral Sea are popular attractions for divers but the real work of discovering and repatriating the remains of more than 8,000 American Missing in Action (MIA) servicemen continues in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 2019, the embassy worked successfully with the Defense POW (Prisoners of War)/MIA Accounting Agency to repatriate the remains of WWII servicemen, some excavated from a plane crash in a remote mountain rain forest and others retrieved from deep coastal waters.
Papua New Guinea is a very young nation, independent from Australia for just 46 years. Many of its people are still deeply rooted in eons-old cultural traditions. It is not uncommon to find people still living by the tribal customs of their ancestors in their dress, homes, and way of life. More than 850 separate tribal languages in Papua New Guinea and distinctive customs go hand-in-hand with each linguistic identity.
The nation’s unique cultural richness has become a fixture in its tourism economy, with numerous annual festivals held in every region. In mountain cities like Goroka and Mount Hagen, just a short plane ride from Port Moresby, tourists can visit festivals called “sing-sings” in which regional tribes don their traditional ceremonial costumes and elaborate tribal face paint or masks, bring their drums, and dance in a celebration of their heritage. In coastal towns like Alotau and island towns like Rabaul, tourists can see demonstrations of traditional kenu boats and kundu drums and see mask festivals featuring the storied Duk-Duk dancers.
As a nascent democracy, growing pains have come in many forms. Transparency International ranks Papua New Guinea 142 out of 180 nations for government corruption. The nation has poorly maintained infrastructure, very low literacy rates, and high rates of disease and malnutrition. Its COVID-19 pandemic response has been abysmal, with cases up more than 1,000 percent since January, testing rates ranking 196 out of 200 globally, failure to enact and enforce timely prevention measures, and overwhelmed hospitals in a perpetual state of disaster with an average of 10 percent of the nationwide health workforce of 500 individuals infected with COVID-19. Its national identity remains fragile as last year, Bougainville, an island province, voted overwhelmingly for independence after fighting a brutal civil war with the government of Papua New Guinea in the late 1990s.
Despite these challenges, the embassy’s team made progress. In response to COVID-19 restrictions, Embassy Port Moresby successfully repatriated more than 220 American citizens and transitioned the popular International Visitor Leadership Program, the 2020 Young Pacific Leaders Conference, and the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs to virtual formats. Additionally, post advanced economic reforms that promoted free, fair, and reciprocal trade practices and a level playing field for U.S. companies by working on a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the Papua New Guinea government and Investment Incentive Agreements with Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Post’s work supporting the Bougainville election, advanced democratic governance, and efforts against gender-based violence strengthened civil society.
“Although we are a small team, we are tackling some of the region’s biggest issues, from combating climate change to the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China, we consistently punch above our weight,” said Ambassador Erin E. McKee. “Port Moresby is a great assignment for officers looking to make a real difference in a challenging environment. Our team has the opportunity to have an impact, advance U.S. national interests, and deepen our partnerships throughout the region.”
This year, Embassy Port Moresby will move out of the former bank building it has occupied as a lock-and-leave post since 1995 and into a new, state-of-the-art embassy campus. Solar photovoltaic panels, an energy-recovery air conditioning system, and the latest in efficient lighting technologies have been incorporated into the design and construction to achieve LEED Silver certification. Using indigenous plant species to showcase the local flora’s natural beauty, the campus incorporates green open space while reducing the heat island effect that results from urban development. The site will collect stormwater and runoff to be re-used for irrigation, keeping the harbor clean and reducing demand on the city’s drainage system. From the jogging path inside the compound, employees and guests can obtain a 360-degree tour of the property that includes exercise and recreation facilities and a Marine Security Guard Residence.
“The many sustainability features incorporated into the design ensure the new campus is respectful of the region’s resources while providing a modern facility that is safe, secure, and resilient to support the important diplomatic mission of the U.S. Embassy,” said Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Project Director Abraham Reyes.
USAID has re-established its mission in Port Moresby, increasing its bilateral programming to play a key role in strengthening U.S.-Pacific partnerships for prosperous and inclusive democratic societies. Signature development efforts include the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, PNG Electrification Partnership, and Solomon Islands with the Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods, and Environment Program.
“USAID is committed to the Pacific for years to come. We are deepening our partnerships, expanding our presence and our programs,” said David Hatch, USAID’s senior development advisor for Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. “USAID works tirelessly to combat COVID-19, improve public health, climate change, biodiversity, good governance, economic growth, energy, infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, and digital connectivity in the region.”
Embassy Port Moresby is in the process of establishing a permanent presence in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
“Our existing consular agency lacks the authority to support the efforts of a growing number of agencies to engage Solomon Islands on sustainable development, good governance, security, community resilience, and climate change,” said Deputy Chief of Mission Link.
While the Peace Corps has not been in Papua New Guinea since 2001, it remains active in Vanuatu and has begun to re-establish its presence in Solomon Islands. Millennium Challenge Corporation will also launch a Threshold Program in Solomon Islands to address the country’s biggest economic growth constraints: management of natural resources in the logging sector and insecure access to land, limiting tourism investment.
Americans may have largely forgotten the common history, but Papua New Guineans, Solomon Islanders, and Ni-Vanuatu have not.
“They recall the massive American army that [Gen.] MacArthur led through New Guinea on the long road back to the Philippines, the ‘Green Hell’ of Guadalcanal, and the half-million Americans whose transit through Vanuatu inspired ‘South Pacific’ on Broadway,” said Link. “They share the values first seen in the strength of American soldiers and then deeply rooted by the American educators and missionaries who staffed schools, hospitals, and churches for generations. The opportunity to build on that history is tremendous.”
Teresa M. Morris is the community liaison office coordinator at Embassy Port Moresby.