Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where belief in black magic is also widespread, have not seen the same level of extreme violence against accused witches.
The experts say the difference is that PNG has had the fastest economic growth.
A wealth of mineral resources and natural gas has transformed the nation’s long-stagnant economy into one of the world’s fastest-growing over the past decade, increasing by an average of almost 7 percent annually from 2007 to 2010. Growth peaked at 8.9 percent in 2011 before slowing to 8 percent last year.
The Asian Development Bank reported last year that PNG has one of the highest levels of inequality, if not the highest, in the Asia-Pacific region.
These socioeconomic problems have inevitably played into a cultural landscape that includes a belief in witches and black magic, said Kate Schuetze, a regional researcher for Amnesty International.
“There is always a reason for the accusation, whether it’s jealousy, wanting to access someone else’s land, a personal grudge against that person or a previous land dispute,” Schuetze said.
PNG Deputy Public Prosecutor Ravunama Auka does not buy that jealousy has been behind a significant number of the sorcery-related slayings he had dealt with.
While he did not have statistics, he said most victims were slain due to a genuine belief that they had killed through sorcery.
Auka had no doubt sorcery-related slayings were increasing, but could not explain why.
“There are all sorts of reasons, not only because some people are wealthy and some are not,” Auka said.
Another possible explanation is the spread of particularly vicious sorcery beliefs that before were just seen in the highland province of Chimbu, said anthropologist Philip Gibbs, a sorcery specialist and Roman Catholic priest who has lived in the wilds of PNG for the past 41 years.
In Chimbu, people bury their dead in concrete so that the bodies will not be eaten at night by small demonic animals that they believe can possess the living. Villagers pay witch doctors to divine who among them is possessed by these demons, which they believe leave the person’s body at night and take on the form of any small animal.
Gibbs said those suspected of being possessed are often tortured to make confessions and sometimes killed.
“That form is spreading to other provinces where it’s never existed before and we’re asking the question why,” Gibbs said.
Accused families abandon their small farms in a hurry, usually taking only what they can carry in a bag. The villagers must then decide who occupies the vacant land.
“That’s where the jealousy and the greed can come in,” Gibbs said.
PNG is under growing international pressure to respond to the violence after a series of high-profile cases made world headlines.
In July last year, police arrested 29 people accused of being part of a cannibal cult in PNG’s jungle interior and charged them with the murders of seven suspected witch doctors. In February, a mob stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of horrified witnesses in Mount Hagan, the country’s third-largest city.
In the case of Rumbali, which took place in April, no arrests have been made, but police said they are treating it as “first-degree murder.”