Assisi, Italy — The basilica at Assisi, renowned for Giotto's frescoes depicting scenes from St. Francis's life, resonated with the deep-throated chants of Tibetan monks, a Hindu temple dancer's sitar-and-cymbal accompaniment, the bellow of the Hebrew shofar, and the blend of tribal and gospel harmonies of the Heritage Singers of Zambia. In the midst of it was Britain's Prince Philip explaining why the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was celebrating its 25th anniversary late last month in such unorthodox fashion.
``Those who are already engaged in the business of the conservation of nature appreciate the immensity of the practical problems,'' said the Duke of Edinburgh, ``but [to] recognize that we must also have the vision and the motive force -- that can only come from spiritual sources.''
The Fund's appeal to religion (which also included a weekend retreat for Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Islamic representatives) is a major departure for the world's largest conservation organization.
Best known for its campaigns to save endangered animal species like the African white rhinoceros and the giant panda, the WWF's current focus is people and their commitment to conservation. ``In many parts of the world,'' explained the Prince, WWF president since 1980, ``the only person with influence is the local religious leader.''
The formal agenda for the non-sectarian conference focused largely on traditional WWF issues such as the draining of wetlands and the felling of tropical forests. But the subject of nuclear power kept cropping up, not surprising in a country that experienced high levels of radioactive contamination of fresh milk and vegetables from the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant last April.
WWF's European affiliates, formerly more exclusively concerned with raising funds for conservation in developing nations, are becoming increasingly active in their own countries as the European environmental movement matures.
Some issues, such as a proposed ban on hunting in Italy, are strictly national in scope.
But many issues related to air and water pollution cut across national boundaries by their very nature: acid rain's impact on the continent's still-vast stands of forest, for one.
It is estimated that half of all the trees in West Germany, 40 percent of the Netherlands' trees, and 30 percent of Switzerland's are affected by acid rain. Although 21 countries have signed the UN Economic Commission for Europe's Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, only Denmark, Finland, France, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and Sweden have actually ratified the protocol committing them to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 percent of 1980 levels by 1993. Britain plans to spend 600 million to reduce emissions from Britain's three largest plants by half that goal -- 15 percent -- over the next ten years.
Christer Agren, coordinator for the Swedish non-governmental secretariat on acid rain, points out that while sulphur pollution is gradually decreasing in Europe, nitrogen-based ozone levels -- about half of which can be attributed to cars -- are holding steady or rising.
West Germany and Switzerland have led the way in imposing strict emissions standards on new cars sold and mandating the sale of lead-free gasoline. Most European countries have pledged to make unleaded fuel available by 1989 but even then supplies may be limited.
Farm policies are another common concern, particularly within the European Economic Community (EEC).
Conservation groups like WWF are moving to recast the debate, which currently centers on the economic costs of over-production, in environmental terms.
Dutch naturalist Dolf Logemann blames the intensification of agriculture for ``the piecemeal destruction of areas rich in wildlife . . . soil erosion in southern European countries . . . decay of soil structure in northern [ones] . . . and chemical pollution from pesticides, artificial fertilizers, heavy metals, and animal wastes.''
Several European nations are taking the tack of returning marginal farmland to wildlife uses. The British government, for example, recently agreed to set aside some 250,000 acres as ``environmentally sensitive areas'' where farmers will be compensated not for how much they produce but how well they manage the land.
The farming issue is likely to keep cropping up in 1987, which the European Economic Community has designated the ``European Year of the Environment.''