‘‘My sense is that when the Chinese build a dam overseas, they give you the standards (the local officials) insist on,’’ said Kenneth Pomeranz, an expert on water issues at the University of Chicago. ‘‘When governments say, ‘We want it done right,’ they know how to do that too.’’
Brian Richter, of the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, said the Chinese believe it is not their role to set environmental and social regulations, but many countries in which they operate don’t have the capacity to enforce proper ones ‘‘so you end up with nobody paying attention.’’ And there’s corruption.
Cambodia seems an apt example, and in particular Koh Kong province, dubbed the ‘‘battery of Cambodia.’’ It is remote, populated mostly by poorly educated ethnic minorities and dominated by the government’s business cronies, who resort to brutal tactics with scant scrutiny by activist groups.
‘‘They can basically do what they want down there. It’s just the Wild West,’’ said Marcus Hardtke, a German forestry expert with detailed knowledge of the area. He said even international environmental groups have remained largely quiet to avoid clashing with the autocratic government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
One dam has been built in Koh Kong, three more are under construction and another — the Cheay Areng — was recently approved despite heavy opposition.
The Areng was rejected for funding in a 2007 Japanese government study as having a very low rate of economic return, and a Chinese company, China Southern Power Grid, pulled out of the project on technical and possibly environmental grounds. Company engineers reportedly cited the need to build a sloping, 24-kilometer-long tunnel to the first turbine because the valley below the dam was too flat.
Additionally, the Areng Valley — regarded as a ‘‘biodiversity jewel’’ with great ecotourism potential — would be ravaged not only by the reservoir but by access roads and transmission lines. The area contains perhaps Cambodia’s most profuse wildlife including the world’s largest population of almost extinct Siamese crocodiles. Some 1,000 villagers are facing eviction.
Opponents believe the seemingly illogical trade-offs can be explained by kickbacks, profit-sharing from highly lucrative illegal logging in the area and a general Chinese push into Koh Kong that includes clearing an area seven times larger than Manhattan for a Chinese-leased seaside pleasure city, having displaced more than 1,000 families from their homes.
Son Chhay, one of the few opposition members in Parliament, said that Chinese-Cambodian dam contracts are simply geared to making profits for the parties involved rather than generating low-cost electricity for the country.
‘‘The Chinese have a funny way of doing deals in Cambodia. Construction costs are inflated by some 300 percent, and the profits shared,’’ Son Chhay said. The Cambodian government declined to comment on his claims.
The government’s belief in the necessity of the projects is echoed by Lu Shi Long, the chief engineer at Tatay dam, set for completion in 2014 by the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation.
‘‘The construction of this hydropower station is beneficial for the development of Cambodia’s economy and the improvement of Cambodian living standards. It’s also a great opportunity for Chinese companies,’’ he said. ‘‘As an engineer, I am proud of this project.’’
As he speaks, some of the 2,000 workers, 800 of them Chinese, swarm over the vast dam wall, smoothing the rocky surface before a concrete facing will be applied. Relays of trucks ferry stones from a quarry gouged out of a hillside. The site is surrounded by a sea of tropical green.
Illegal loggers ring the site, having all but wiped out stands of rosewood, the highly prized hardwood smuggled to China’s furniture makers.
Improvements won’t come, said the Nature Conservancy’s Richter, until sustainable standards can be verified by an independent body.
‘‘The industry as a whole recognizes that there’s a need, but the playing field has shifted and the Chinese companies are by far the dominant players,’’ he said. ‘‘The future depends on them, for better or worse.’’
Kurtenbach reported from Shanghai. Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ This story is part of ‘‘China’s Reach,’’ a project tracking China’s influence on its trading partners over three decades and exploring how that is changing business, politics and daily life. Keep up with AP’s reporting on China’s Reach, and join the conversation about it, using (hashtag)APChinaReach on Twitter.