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Global food prices fall for fifth year in a row, but economic uncertainties remain for 2017 – UN

SINT MAARTEN/INTERNATIONAL, 12 January 2017 – Data from 2016 reveals that for the fifth year in a row, the prices of food around the world have declined, in some cases 1.5 per cent below 2015 levels, a monthly United Nations report revealed.

According to a press release released today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), bumper harvests – or harvests that have been remarkably plentiful – as well as promising prospects for staple cereals, helped to offset pressure on tropical commodities like sugar and palm oil, whose production was adversely impacted by El Niño.

The FAO's Food Price Index measures the monthly change in international prices for five major food commodity groups: major cereals, vegetable oils, dairy, meat, and sugar. The 2016 average was 161.6 points.

Throughout 2016, cereal prices declined steadily – down 39 per cent from their 2011 peak. Meanwhile, sugar rose by 34.2 per cent and vegetable oil prices saw an 11.4 per cent increase.

According to Abdolreza Abbassian, an FAO senior economist, “economic uncertainties, including movements in exchange rates, are likely to influence food markets even more so this year.”

FAO reported that vegetable oil prices rose by 4.2 per cent from November, in part due to low global inventory levels and tight supplies for palm oil and in the case of soy oil, due to the rising use of biodiesels in North and South America. Higher prices for butter, cheese, and whole milk powder due to restraints in the European Union and Oceania drove dairy prices up by 3.3 per cent. Both sugar and meat indexes fell, the former due to a weakening Brazilian currency and the latter because of lower costs in bovine and poultry meats.

The Index was introduced in 1996 in order to help the public monitor global agricultural commodity markets. It gained prominence as an indicator of potential food security concerns for developing countries following significant price hikes in 2008.

Since then, with brief exceptions, agricultural commodity prices have remained relatively high. Further information about the index, including how it is calculated and updated, is available online.

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Thai tourist resorts hit by flooding

SINT MAARTEN/THAILAND - Ten southern provinces have been affected by heavy flooding in Thailand, including the holiday islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.

At least 18 people are reported to have died across the affected areas and many hotels and resorts have reportedly been under water in Koh Samui, although flood waters have begun to recede on the island since the weekend.

The Foreign Office has updated its travel advice as follows:

"There continues to be widespread flooding in southern Thailand, including in Koh Samui, Krabi, Trang, and Koh Phangan, and other areas frequented by tourists.

"Some ferries and flights have been delayed or cancelled and road traffic is difficult. The local authorities are providing assistance to the worst affected areas.

"If you're travelling in these areas you should check with your tour operator, monitor local media and follow the advice of the local authorities."

Thai authorities have also warned the public to be alert to the possibility of crocodiles on the loose.

A zoo in Nakorn Si Thammarat was breached by flood waters and wild animals may have escaped.

Nakorn Si Thammarat local official Manus Pongyeela said: "I was informed that some crocodiles could have escaped from the Thalad Zoo due to the high level of flood waters."

Nakhon Si Thammarat airport remains closed and dozens of flights have been cancelled in the last few days, stranding hundreds of passengers.

Rail tracks in parts of the south have also been washed away.

Samui tourism official Nongyao Jirundorn said: "Some tourists are enjoying the flooding. They're taking pictures and going swimming."

The disaster has affected nearly a million people the Thai Interior Ministry said, and will take several days for flood waters to subside. (TravelMole)

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Fort Lauderdale shooting raises questions over US airport security policy

SINT MAARTEN/US - Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport has reopened after Friday's attack by a lone gunman which left five people - including a British woman - dead and eight injured.

The attack has raised questions about the transportation of firearms and whether baggage claim areas are secure enough, with a US flyers' rights pressure group saying airports are now 'the number-one soft target'.

Gunman Esteban Santiago removed his gun from a checked bag, which was transported legally, loaded it in a bathroom and opened fire in the baggage claim area.

Great-grandmother Olga Woltering, a British woman who lived in the US, was among those killed.

Baggage claim is outside the secure areas monitored by Transportation Safety Administration agents.

US passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org has called for emergency measures to prevent further incidents.

"Airports are now clearly the number-one soft target, and are naked and totally unprotected," it said in a statement.

It has called for a ban of live ammunition in checked baggage.

Under current TSA rules, unloaded guns can be legally transported as checked baggage in a lockable hard case which can include separately packed ammunition.

"TSA doesn't want to infringe on anyone's right to take a firearm with them when they travel. We just want to make sure it's packed in the safest way possible and that it's in a checked bag so it's not accessible during the flight," TSA spokesman Mark Howell said.

In addition, baggage claim areas are not part of an airport's secure 'airside' zones and can be accessed by members of the public without any ID at any time.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union which represents TSA agents, said it wants measures put it place 'to improve the security of passengers, TSA officers, and airport and airline personnel'. (TravelMole)

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Technical glitch causes delays at US airports including New York, Miami, Boston and Atlanta

SINT MAARTEN/USA - A computer glitch is being blamed for exceptionally long immigration queues at several US airports yesterday.

Delays affected passengers arriving in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Atlanta.

Officials said there had been a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 'technology disruption'.

The outage lasted for more than two hours late on Monday.

CBP officials said there was no impact on national security and it doesn't believe the system had been hacked.

"During the technology disruption, CBP had access to national security-related databases and all travellers were screened according to security standards. At this time, there is no indication the service disruption was malicious in nature," CBP said in a statement.

Passengers vented their frustration in numerous tweets. Kristin Klingshirn tweeted while still on a plane after arriving at Atlanta: "Update from pilot....because customs computers are down...we are the 20th plane in line for a gate."

Melinda Henrickson tweeted at Miami Airport: "Lady next to me is having a breakdown and there is a physical fight going on around the corner." (TravelMole)

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ABTA travel association unveils top five travel trends for 2017

SINT MAARTEN/INTERNATIONAL - ABTA, the United Kingdom’s (UK) largest travel association, representing travel agents and tour operators that sell 32 billion pounds of holidays and other travel arrangements each year, has unveiled the major travel trends for 2017 in its latest report.

The currency conscious holiday

Recent fluctuations in the value of the British pound are expected to continue into 2017 and it is likely that this will influence holiday decisions. Destinations where the pound may go further include Argentina, Mexico and South Africa.

Long haul city breaks

With the city break firmly established as British people's favourite holiday type - over half of people (53%) took one in 2016 compared to 38% who took a beach holiday - city breakers are looking further afield for their next holiday, and the city break is going long haul. Long haul city break destinations include Tokyo, Cape Town, Dubai, Hong Kong and Bangkok. US cities including LA, Miami, Boston and Washington are also popular.

Micro-adventures

Defined by British adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys as 'small and achievable, for normal people with real lives', busy holidaymakers are opting to spend some of their holiday or a short break, experiencing destinations in a more active way by taking part in a micro-adventure.

Travel technology hits the high street

Holidaymakers may well find themselves enjoying their hotel, resort or destination before they travel, as travel companies use technology such as virtual reality to let people 'try before they fly'.

Sustainable tourism takes centre stage

2017 is the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, and this is expected to put sustainable tourism right at the heart of the agenda. According to the UN, 'well-designed and well-managed tourism' can contribute to sustainable development, to job creation and to trade, and it is expected that travel companies may be inspired by this year to look at their role in the destinations they sell to. (TravelMole)

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulates President-elect Adam Barrow of Gambia

INTERNATIONAL, 29 December 2016 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called Adam Barrow, the President-elect of Gambia, to congratulate him on his electoral victory and to reiterate the commitment of the United Nations to support a peaceful, timely, and orderly transfer of power.

In a readout of the phone call issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban said that the UN welcomed and fully supported the decision of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on 17 December to support the safety of the president-elect.

The UN Security Council and the African Union have also expressed such support and have acknowledged Mr. Barrow as the President-elect after he defeated President Yahya Jammeh in elections on 1 December.

Mr. Ban encouraged President-elect Barrow to urge his supporters to show restraint and not resort to violence. He emphasized that the UN would support the will of the people in their election of Mr. Barrow as well as the future Government’s in efforts to promote democracy and sustainable development for the country.

Despite efforts to reach President Yahya Jammeh by phone, the Secretary-General has not yet been able to speak with him, according to the note.

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Majority of trafficking victims are women and girls; one-third children – new UN report

INTERNATIONAL, 21 December 2016 – According to a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the vast majority of all human trafficking victims – some 71 per cent – are women and girls and one third are children.

“Trafficking for sexual exploitation and for forced labour remain the most prominently detected forms, but victims are also being trafficked to be used as beggars, for forced or sham marriages, benefit fraud, or production of pornography,” said UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov today.

The 2016 UNODC Global Report disaggregates data on the basis of gender and found that women and girls are usually trafficked for marriage and sexual slavery. Men and boys, however, are trafficked into exploitative labour, including work in the mining sector, as porters, soldiers, and slaves.

Worldwide, 28 per cent of trafficking victims are children, but children account for 62 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 64 per cent in Central America and the Caribbean. Sixty nine countries detected trafficking victims from Sub-Saharan Africa between 2012 and 2014.

Mr. Fedotov emphasized the link between armed groups and human trafficking, noting how armed groups often engage in trafficking in their territories of operation, coercing women and girls into marriages or sexual slavery, and pressing men and boys to act as forced labour or combatants.

“People escaping from war and persecution are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking,” he said. “The urgency of their situation might lead them to make dangerous migration decisions.”

Earlier this year, UNODC appointed Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nadia Murad Basee Taha as its Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Ms. Murad is a 23 year old Yazidi woman who survived capture and abuse by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has praised her courage and work as a “voice for the voiceless.”

The report documents patterns among trafficking and regular migration flows that share the same destination country. It also identifies trends within countries, between neighbouring States, and across continents. Factors that tend to aggravate rates of trafficking include transnational organized crime in the country of origin and a victim’s socio-economic profile.

While 158 countries have criminalized human trafficking – a huge improvement over the past 13 years – Mr. Fedotov nonetheless warned that “the rate of convictions remains far too low, and victims are not always receiving the protection and services countries are obliged to provide.”

He called for more resources to identify and assist trafficking victims and to improve the criminal justice responses to detect, investigate, and successfully prosecute cases.

The UNODC releases a report on trafficking every two years. This September, during the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York, it emphasized that as more people become migrants and refugees, there is a greater risk for trafficking, and that states must respond accordingly.

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The State of Our Environment: A Retrospect and Hope for 2017

COMMENTARY - I have had the privilege to have travelled extensively both for work and for pleasure, although sometimes during those travels the circumstances I found myself in were the least bit pleasurable; having dysentery on an eight hour bus ride with no toilet in Tanzania comes to mind. Travel, whether representing Sint Maarten and its Nature abroad or for personal reasons, causes reflection and thus, as I sit on a plane on the tarmac in Bangkok waiting to continue on to Qatar, Amsterdam and finally home, I reflect on our environment during a very tumultuous 2016.

2016 saw significant issues facing our nature as we develop from a young nation into a country finding her place in the region and in the world. An island strikingly beautiful yet faced with issues damaging to our fragile environment and economy. It is our nature and the goods and services that it provides that drives our economic wellbeing; our sea, beaches, hills and lagoon are the things that make us an important player in the Caribbean Tourism Market.

Early last year on my way to Bimini in the Bahamas to attend a shark conservation workshop I stopped over briefly in Nassau where I was amazed to see a large resort development sitting completely empty. Chatting with the taxi driver he explained that the development was a large project funded by the Chinese and subsequently left bankrupt, causing significant ecological and economic damage. I was worried to hear about similar developments occurring on Sint Maarten and I hope that whatever occurs remains transparent and takes into account the significant ecological concerns the whole island shares.

Similarly, I was discussing the Chinese project with a highly placed politician who was open to my concerns, until I mentioned sharks. He called me crazy for wanting to protect these highly endangered and ecologically significant animals and suggested I seek professional help. I was bothered by the still ongoing ignorance on the importance of these animals so critical to the health of our ocean.

While in Japan and Vietnam I saw first-hand shark fins being sold on a tremendous scale, wiping out these animals at a rate of up to one hundred million a year. That is why I was so happy and proud of my government when they declared shark protection for Sint Maarten. I am also proud that Sint Maarten and myself are a part of a regional push to enact shark conservation in the Caribbean, ensuring that these majestic species can continue to maintain the balance of our precious Caribbean Sea.

Another group of majestic creatures that call our waters home are marine mammals, whales and dolphins in particular. I have had the privilege of swimming with both in the wild, sharing intimate space with another animal at least as intelligent as I am. It has changed my life. It is for this reason why I am again very disappointed in the rumors regarding the possibility of a captive dolphin facility on Sint Maarten. Dolphins are highly intelligent, sentient, and highly social creatures and penning them up for our amusement is criminal. Worldwide there is a movement to stop these activities and places that keep dolphins in captivity have been faced with international condemnation. It would be sad to see the same happen here.

Our local ecosystems are also still under threat. The Simpson Bay Lagoon is still continuously under significant pressure although now, with the listing of Mullet Pond as a Ramsar wetland of international importance, there is hope in conserving some of the last mangrove strands left in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Hopefully we can avoid becoming like the Bay of Tonkin in Vietnam where I recently saw the type of destruction the removal of mangroves can have on a wetland, including damaging floods and immense fish kills.

Our coral reefs are also still facing threats despite our hard work in managing the Marine Park. We are facing unprecedented ecological change in the face of climate change that will significantly impact our reefs. But I have been inspired by the people of Jamaica who have helped us implement our coral gardening project here on Sint Maarten, made us aware that rewilding our coral reefs is not only the ecologically, but also the economically sound thing to do.

Finally, I can’t end this letter without mentioning two things that are essential to the true conservation and management of the environment on Sint Maarten; the establishment of a terrestrial protected area and a solution to the Philipsburg landfill. We urgently need an area on land to be protected and conserved, where our endemic orchids, reptiles and insects can thrive and fulfill their ecological role, a role in which we all play a part as inhabitants of our island nation and of the earth.

But the single biggest issue is the landfill. I think I have said enough on this, to the point of sounding like a broken record in fact, but for the sake of this country, its people and the nature that makes us unique we must find an urgent solution to this environmental disaster. While living in Tanzania in Africa I saw first-hand the effects landfills can have on a population, from birth deformities to cancer to asthma. And I am worried that, based on the surveys which were conducted by the Nature Foundation, we have been seeing a spike in these cases on Sint Maarten. Solve this urgently!

My stopover is coming to an end. Time to pack up and settle in for the long flight. I am looking forward to being back on my rock and I would like to wish all a happy New Year and Sint Maarten the stability we need to conserve our land and our sea, to ensure our people are healthy and for us all to realize that Nature is Our Future. Happy 2017!

Tadzio Bervoets

Nature Foundation Sint Maarten

Narrow Road, Cole Bay

COMMENTARY: The comments are the sole responsibility of the author.

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UN condemns ‘horrific’ terrorist attack in Berlin

INTERNATIONAL, 20 December 2016 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the terrorist attack in Berlin last night and expressed his deepest sympathy and condolences to the families “of the victims of this horrific act,” as well as to the German Government and people.

“The Secretary-General hopes anyone involved in the commission of this appalling crime will be swiftly brought to justice,” said a statement issued today by his spokesperson in New York.

According to media reports, Monday night, a man ploughed a truck through a Christmas market in the heart of the German capital, killing 12.

In the statement, Mr. Ban wished a speedy recovery to those injured.

In a separate statement, the President of the UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson, also condemned the terrorist attack, noting that according to the latest information, the incident resulted in the death of 12 people and the injuring of up to 50 others. 

“President Thomson is following the situation in Berlin closely, extends his condolences to the victims’ families, the Government and the people of Germany, and wishes a speedy recovery to those wounded,” the statement said.

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Ban commends West African countries’ firm decision to stand by Gambian President-elect

INTERNATIONAL, 19 December 2016 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today commended decisions by a bloc of West African countries to take all necessary actions to enforce the outcome of the presidential election in Gambia, guarantee the protection of President-elect Adama Barrow, and attend the new leader’s inauguration ceremony on 19 January 2017.

“The Secretary-General commends the firm stance taken by the Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on 17 December with respect to the situation in Gambia,” said a statement issued by Mr. Ban’s spokesperson.

The Secretary-General remains deeply concerned about the situation in Gambia following the presidential election on 1 December, in particular that the Independent Electoral Commission continues to be under the control of military forces, the statement added.

“He urges the Gambian security forces to uphold their neutrality and demonstrate restraint under the unfolding circumstances,” the statement said.

The Secretary-General underscores the UN’s commitment to fully support ECOWAS decisions, including, if requested, assistance to the mediation effort to be led by Presidents, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and John Dramani Mahama of Ghana.

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