Fu professore universitario e autore di numerosi libri di argomento ecologico, ricoprì importanti cariche scientifiche, fu membro di accademie e ricevette premi ed onorificenze internazionali. In particolare è stato membro in Italia dell’Accademia nazionale delle scienze detta dei XL nonché membro dell’Accademia delle scienze della Russia, dell’Accademia internazionale per l’ambiente e di altre accademie scientifiche. Compì i suoi studi universitari in Milano ed in Santiago del Cile, ove conseguì il Ph.D. in produzione animale nel 1958, seguito dalla specializzazione in ecologia animale a Padova, nel 1960.
La sua attività iniziò con l’insegnamento universitario come professore di ecologia presso le Università di Santiago del Cile e di Valdivia e come vice-rettore esecutivo dell’Università di Valdivia. Nel 1971 passò all’UNESCO, dal 1971 al 1984 come Segretario generale del programma internazionale sull’uomo e la biosfera (MAB) e poi come Direttore della divisione di scienze ecologiche. Dal 1984 al 1990 fu Direttore del centro di ecologia funzionale ed evolutiva di Montpéllier. Nel 1990 fu nominato Vicedirettore generale dell’UNESCO, il massimo grado fino ad allora raggiunto da un italiano in quella organizzazione, che tenne fino al 1992; fu a capo della delegazione dell’UNESCO al summit di Rio de Janeiro su ambiente e sviluppo.
Ha organizzato e lanciato programmi di rilevanza internazionale ed è stato autore o coautore di 40 libri ed oltre 700 articoli, i cui temi principali sono l’ecologia comparata delle cinque regioni del mondo con un clima di tipo mediterraneo, l’ecologia ed evoluzione della fauna del suolo dai tropici sudamericani all’Antartide, la bioclimatologia, la pianificazione e la gestione territoriale, la diversità biologica e culturale, gli effetti positivi e negativi della globalizzazione, la storia delle globalizzazioni, etc.
In the 1960s, Chile was home for Francesco di Castri, and he maintained close links with that country, and with the hispanophone world, throughout his life. From 1961 to 1969, he was Professor of Ecological Sciences and Director of the Institute of Animal Production at the University of Santiago, and then the founding Director of the Institute of Ecology at the Austral University of Valdivia. During his time in Chile, his primary research interest was soil fauna, specializing on an order of primitive wingless insects (Collembola, springtails), with pseudo-scorpions the speciality of his spouse Valeria Vitali-di Castri (who died in 2002). His other main research field concerned divergence and convergence in the structure and functioning of mediterranean-climate ecosystems, including comparative studies in Chile and California within the framework of the International Biological Programme (IBP).
It was during this period that di Castri first became associated with UNESCO. He directed the first UNESCO Latin American Regional Course on Soil Biology in Santiago in 1965. He then contributed substantively to several international symposia organized within the Natural Resources Research Programme, such as those on the ecology of the subarctic zones (Helsinki, 1966) and methods of study in soil ecology (Paris, 1967).
In 1971, he was appointed by UNESCO as the Secretary of the International Coordinating Council for the Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), later taking on the functions of founding director of the Division of Ecological Sciences on its creation in 1974. From November 1971 to January 1984, he shaped and directed what became to be considered as one of UNESCO’s principal contributions in promoting international cooperation on environmental issues. He tended MAB through its phases of international and regional planning and the launching of a first generation of field activities. With Michel Batisse, he nurtured the birth and development of the biosphere reserve concept and the designation of the early biosphere reserves.
Di Castri’s achievement was to make real the objectives of an almost wildly ambitious undertaking, MAB, whose aim was no less than “to develop the basis within the natural and social sciences for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere and for the improvement of the global relationship between man and the environment; to predict the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world and thereby to increase man’s ability to manage efficiently the natural resources of the biosphere”. To borrow a remark about MAB from his fellow countryman Professor Valerio Giacomini, “a challenge that borders on the limits of the possible”.
In 1981, di Castri was centrally involved in planning and organizing a scientific conference – convened jointly by UNESCO and ICSU – aimed at taking stock of what had been achieved over the first ten years of MAB. Shortcomings as well as accomplishments were identified. But what was implicit, not explicit, in the assessment was the role of di Castri in promoting a certain type of international cooperation – one that recognizes the universality of science but also the diversity of cultures and the geopolitical realities of the day. Whatever achievements can be claimed for the MAB Programme owe not a little to the charisma, innovation and drive of its founding director, di Castri.
Parallel with the MAB Programme, in the late 1970s and 1980s, UNESCO’s Division of Ecological Sciences provided the Secretariat of the ‘natural part’ of the World Heritage Convention. Under di Castri’s directorship, this Convention started up its operations, laying the foundation of what is today one of the world’s most successful and best known legal instruments for the conservation of both the natural and cultural heritage.
In the early 1980s, while still with UNESCO, Francesco di Castri undertook for the French Government a review of the state of ecology in France. Involvement in that process was one of the factors that contributed to him returning to academic life in early 1984, when he left UNESCO to become Director of Research within the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). There, he headed the prestigious ecological research institute in Montpellier, and orchestrated its transformation into what became the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE).
Francesco di Castri returned to UNESCO in 1990 to be the founding Coordinator of the Bureau for Coordination of Environmental Programmes, responsible for taking in hand the Organization’s contributions to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio and its immediate follow-up. He remained in this post until his retirement from UNESCO in December 1992, though he continued to chair the UNESCO Committee on the Follow-up to UNCED from 1993-1998.
Increased contacts with the industrial-production sector reflected his long-held conviction that scientists and environmentalists should seek to understand the motivations and workings of business, as a means of bringing influence to bear on those whose actions have such an enormous impact on the environment. Cooperation with groups such as the Total Foundation included assessments of the interfaces between tourism, information and biodiversity, among others. Work with local communities included that with the population of Easter Island and the broader Polynesian region on taking advantage of modern communication technologies in exploring options for their future. These activities were yet another demonstration of di Castri’s career-long concern to make science contribute to sustainable development in a practical manner. At the same time, he was often an outspoken critic of misrepresentations of the concept of sustainable development by scientists and policy-makers alike.
During his career, Francesco di Castri was gainfully employed in three main ways: as a university professor in Chile, as a promoter of international scientific cooperation within a United Nations institution based in Paris, and as a director of a national research institute in France. Over a period of four-and-a-half decades, he was closely involved in several of the principal international scientific programmes on the environment, from the International Biological Programme (IBP) and MAB to the planning of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in the mid-1980s and the launching of DIVERSITAS in the early 1990s. He was among the scientists invited to take part in the planning of the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and played a key role in mobilizing the participation in that conference of environmental scientists from developing countries.
Over this whole period, he was closely involved in the work of the international scientific community, particularly through the ICSU family (now, the International Council for Science). Among other honorary positions, he was a long-time member of the Executive Committee of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). He was elected IUBS Secretary General in 1988, then as IUBS President (1991-1994) and served as immediate Past President from 1994 to 1997.
Francesco di Castri was the first Vice President and one of the founding fathers of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) from 1969 to 1972, then again a member of the Executive Committee from 1985 to 1995, and President of SCOPE from 1988 to 1992. During the 1980s and 1990s, he also led several projects of SCOPE, especially a joint project with UNESCO on ecotones, a preliminary study on new technologies for scientific information and, most recently, a project on Environment in the Global Information Society that explored the new opportunities and challenges for the environment brought about by societal changes. The role of Francesco di Castri in the development of the SCOPE programme over the years was pivotal. In particular, he fostered the interdisciplinary work between natural and human sciences, and promoted better attention to decision makers’ needs for informed advice on environmental issues.
Francesco di Castri was a prolific and creative writer, with over 40 books to his name as author or co-author, editor or co-editor. He also authored or co-authored some 700 scientific and popular articles, monographs and book chapters. Subjects addressed included quantitative soil biology, information theory, structure of animal communities from the tropics to Antarctica, convergence of Mediterranean ecosystems, biogeography and biodiversity, strategies and constraints for natural resources development, organization of international interdisciplinary research on environmental issues, increasing the credibility of ecological research, biological complexity, effects of globalization on the environment and society.
In the broader field of communicating scientific information for different audiences, di Castri was the leader of the Editorial Advisory Board of the 11-volume encyclopedic series Biosfera/Biosphere, published in Catalan, Spanish and English by the Enciclopèdia Catalana of Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the International Advisory Board and Professor in the UNESCO Chair on Sustainable Development in the Latin American Forum on Environmental Sciences (FLACAM) in La Plata, Argentina. He was also honorary president of the ‘Chaire de recherches et d’intervention en Éco-conseil’ at the University of Chicoutimi (Québec, Canada), giving regular courses for diploma students. He was a dedicated supporter of la Francophonie, especially through his links with the IEPF (Institut de l’énergie et de l’environnement de la Francophonie), where he advised on sustainability issues.
Among honours and distinctions, he was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa, by the University of Kuopio (Finland) in 1983. In 1997, he was elected member of the forty-strong National Academy of Sciences of Italy, and a year later in 1998 he received the title of Commander of the Order of the Italian Republic. He was also elected member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Agriculture of France, and the Academy of Forest Science of Italy. Other honours included the Medalla Rectoral of the University of Chile (1999) and in 2000 he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins from the President of the Chilean Republic (the highest decoration that a non-national can receive in that country). He was also made an honorary citizen of the municipality of Mar Chiquita in Argentina, in recognition of his leadership of the ‘Camino del Gaucho’ project in that region.
Throughout much of his career, di Castri was centrally involved in bringing together scientists from different disciplines, of both the natural and social sciences, to conduct problem oriented research on resource management and man-environment interactions. Underpinning this work was his conviction that the diversity of natural and socio-economic situations that exist in the world provides a basis and not an obstacle for meaningful scientific cooperation, and that shared responsibilities and respect for different cultures should be the cornerstones of international cooperation. He felt strongly that promotion of innovative responses to new and complex problems implies acceptance of the possibility of failure. He had a lifelong interest in testing new ways of cementing the participation of scientists, planners and local people in particular field projects, and of popularizing and diffusing information on the environment. He eschewed dogma and rhetoric in favour of concrete actions.
As an individual, di Castri was a realistic optimist. An optimist in that he subscribed to the notion that ecology is a science associated with opportunity and hope rather than with doom and despair. He was not one of those who preach that environmental doomsday is nigh. Rather, he emphasized the role of science in contributing to positive goals, such as putting resource use on a more sustainable basis. A realist in that he had a very acute sense of what is possible and what is not.
Francesco di Castri was a four-language polyglot, esteemed by those in government and those in science, in North and South, East and West. He was a noble, complex and highly erudite signore, in the tradition of his native city. He mixed passions for the cinema, football and linguistics, similarly to his near contemporary Umberto Eco. He was a skilled and subtle debater, with a fine sense of irony and metaphor … highly appreciated by those who were not in his line of fire. He was an exceptional motivator of those around him, a man of imagination and foresight, of courage and rigour. He left his mark. He will be missed and remembered by many.