The population of Western Province, the province furthest from the national capital of Port Moresby, is estimated to be 185,000. About 15,000 of these people live in Tabubil and 40,000 people live along the 800 kilometres of the Fly River system. While the Ok Tedi mine has generated a cash economy in the vicinity of the mine, close to one third of the Western Province people still earn less than 20 Kina a year in income.
The Min people, traditional owners of the rugged rainforest area where the mine is situated, had little contact with the outside world prior to mine development. One of the few documented visits was a prospecting expedition in the 1930s.
The people of the Western Province lived off the land. Their main sources of food came from the rich river system running from the north to the south of the land and from hunting in the forests and plains of the province.
Today, the people still live very close to the land. Many have begun business ventures in natural resources such as rubber, rice, pineapples, ecotourism, timber and fish. Traditional Min villages (Abip) were built on crests of ridges, sides of valleys, or along the edge of a river terrace. An average Min village consisted of about six to ten houses for between 40 and 70 people.
Further south along the Fly River and floodplains, villages were built on knolls in the grasslands or on high banks of the river. These villages can contain several hundred inhabitants. Society was, and in most places still is, patriarchal. The traditional methods of subsistence living are still upheld in areas remote from the Tabubil-Kiunga corridor.
Traditionally, spirituality and religion were based on the worship of nature, the environment and ancestors. Placating the spirits of ancestors is a common theme in traditional beliefs, as is a fear of evil influences and of sorcery and witchcraft. Until the coming of the missionaries to the mountain areas in the early 1950s, this form of spirituality and its associated rituals were the Min guide to survival.
PNG's current constitution declares that it is a Christian country and the churches have played an important role in developing the country's health and education services. European contact and missions, however, are said to have caused disruptive changes to the traditional culture and spiritual world.