Tabubil: A college town in the clouds


Built to support the Ok Tedi mine, the town of Tabubil is in many ways a model town for Papua New Guinea.

In spite of its remote location in the misty Star Mountains, its roads and houses are well-maintained; it has reputable and well-resourced hospital, international school and small international airport; its utilities are reliable, and security is rarely an issue. There’s even a golf course (although landslides adjust its fairways from time to time).

But how is Tabubil and its 10,000-strong community to be sustained and even flourish once its reason for being—the giant Ok Tedi mine—closes, either in 2015 or 2024? And what of the surrounding communities; about 80% of the workers in the villages surrounding Tabubil also derive their livelihood from the mine.

This pressing question has been the subject of Tabubil Futures, a study commissioned by Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program Ltd (PNGSDP) and Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML) to determine how the town will survive after mine closure.

Out of this study has arisen a range of strategic initiatives that will see Tabubil transformed from a mining town into a ‘sustainable mixed-economy college town,’ with a broader economic base and, eventually, its own municipal government. Arguably the most high profile project under this transformation plan is the creation of the Star Mountains Institute of Technology (SMIT). Due to its proximity to the Ok Tedi mine, Tabubil has been a training centre for a range of mine-related skills for some years. SMIT will bring Tabubil’s existing training activities under one banner, and also develop a broader range of courses in such critical areas as business, health, hospitality, agriculture, technology, environmental science and teacher training.

Land for SMIT’s campus in Tabubil has been secured and the building of its environmentally-friendly campus of classrooms, laboratories, student accommodation, theatre, library and conference centre has been put out to tender. Dr Trevor Davison, SMIT’s Chief Executive Officer, expects the build to take about two years. A proposal for a SMIT campus in nearby Kiunga has also been drafted.

‘Out of this study has arisen a range of strategic initiatives that will see Tabubil transformed from a mining town into a “sustainable mixed-economy college town”.’

Story continues after advertisment...

Other parts of the Tabubil Futures plan will see Tabubil’s hospital turned into a teaching hospital under an arrangement with Divine Word University in Madang Province, and the commercialisation of electricity infrastructure currently owned and operated by OTML. The latter move will involve the transfer of OTML’s three local power generation assets to PNG Energy Developments Ltd and Western Power, which will for the first time be able to charge commercial rates to users. Also on the agenda is more housing, a town planning framework, and plans to commercialise Tabubil’s small but busy international airport.

With all these initiatives at various stages of execution, it is likely Tabubil will be a very different town a decade from now. It will be hosting academic conferences, managing programs from national and international partner universities, and producing skilled workers not only for the mining and gas projects in the neighbouring Highlands and Papua Basin but also for private and public sector employers across the country.

Professor Ross Garnaut likens the planned transformation of Tabubil to that of Pittsburgh in the United States—a former steel town that overcame the departure of its traditional manufacturing industries in the 1980s and is now one of the United States’ most liveable cities with a strong technology and services sector.

If it can achieve a comparable transformation, Tabubil Futures could well prove a blueprint for post-resources communities across PNG.

This article first published in PNG’s Western Province 2012

Leave a Reply