Their names may mean nothing. Erodo, Kay Kay, Visumzi, Panjy - four unknown
children born when world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago to draw up
resolutions to solve the planet's woes.
But as thousands of delegates reconvened in Africa yesterday to try to put
right what they failed to achieve in Brazil, the children's stories graphically
illustrate the task facing officials deadlocked at the latest Earth Summit.
The children were among a group of eight tracked in a United Nations study
to measure the effects on their lives since 1992, the year of the earlier summit
and their births. The officials in Johannesburg - hurrying around last night with
sheaves of documents, earnestly huddling in corners of the convention center -
would do well to study their stories.
They are of lives blighted by hunger, pollution, poverty and death. Erodo,
born to nomad parents in northern Kenya, has been a victim of the arms trade.
Bandits have attacked his family many times, stealing cattle.
There are more than 100 million guns across Africa today. Erodo suffers from
nightmares and warns he would 'shoot anyone' he thought was a threat. A small
boy with sad brown eyes, he is happiest when getting his hands on a tin of corn
that occasionally reaches them from aid agencies. His dream is to have a 'clean
Incredibly, his family are still alive. Not so for Panjy, whose father died
from acute chemical poisoning days after she was born. He worked at a fireworks
factory in the arid southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Panjy's oldest brother is bedridden with chemical poisoning, her mother slaves
80-hour shifts in the same building that killed her husband, while her best friend
dips fingers into copper sulphate 12 hours a day to line firework fuses. Together
they earn less than £2 a week, a sum that three billion people - half the
planet's population - cannot match.
The threat of starvation ensures Panjy is under pressure to abandon school
and become a victim of India's growing appetite for child labor. A hundred million
youngsters are believed to be toiling in atrocious conditions in the country.
Despite the inevitability of a grim future, Panjy, a beautiful girl with wide
brown eyes and delicate features, dreams of providing a free healthcare service
for the sick people in her deprived area: 'I want to become a doctor and then
I will treat people for nothing.' Critics claim the Johannesburg summit has ignored
the issue of child labor. The instability of the global economy has also created
insecurity for children closer to home, according to the study.
The effects of inequalities can be more subtle. Kay Kay lives in the overcrowded
city of Guangzhou, China, where congestion is so acute that her parents were forced
to live apart during the week so they could reach work on time because of heavy
A product of the one-child policy to curb population growth, Kay Kay sees her
parents only a few minutes a day because of the demands to work a minimum 70-hour
week to get on in China.
She is already planning an exit strategy, spending her evenings alone in her
cramped flat playing solitaire or combing her hair in front of the mirror. Her
dream is to emulate her hero, Miss Hong Kong. 'When I grow up I want to wear high-heeled
As the summit in Johannesburg lurches towards its conclusion, experts have
warned that the suffering caused by poverty and a lack of basic services appears
certain to distort the lives of another generation.
The 10-year study, which has been filmed for a BBC documentary, has also exposed
the lack of effort since Rio to control the biggest killer of children - disease.
Within three months of the summit's conclusion, one of the eight children chosen
for the study died without a name in the Amazon rainforests of Venezuela.
Her parents refused to name her until she was 12 months old, an indicator of
the high infant mortality in the area.
But it is the host nation for this year's Earth Summit that offers the most
startling insight into inequality. Justin - a white, privileged farmer's son -
was brought up in a culture of fear. His bedroom windows were covered with grenade
screens while his father kept a pistol under the mattress and a shotgun beneath
his bed to guard against attack from the disenfranchised black community.
Justin's school, Queens College, is now desegregated for the first time in
decades and will, according to his father, offer him enough opportunities to succeed
in the new South Africa.
For Visumzi, a black child, the future is bleak. Trapped in a spiral of poverty
and violence, - 15,000 South Africans were killed by violence in nine months last
year - his quality of life has failed to improve since he was born. His township,
Thornhill, in the Eastern Cape, is a cruel, unforgiving place to grow up in.
When asked what changes he would like to see in 10 years' time, Visumzi said:
'I would stop the grown-ups from raping children. People are all right until pay
day, and then they get drunk and and act like grown-up thugs.'
HIV has ravaged the community. Visumzi's aunt died from the virus last year
and although it infects one in nine South Africans, the issue has been largely
ignored by the Earth Summit.
Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement anti-poverty campaign,
said real reforms, not bluster, would have to emerge from the Johannesburg talks.
'Our leaders cynically turned their backs on pledges made in Rio,' he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002