Indigenous Leaders in Biodiversity

0:05 Sara Pawlikowska

Hello everyone. Welcome to podcast. My name is Sara Pawlikowska. I'm the co-founder at And today my guest is Drea Burbank, who is the CEO at Savimbo. How are you doing today?

0:15 Drea Burbank

Good morning.

0:16 Sara Pawlikowska

So before we begin, can I just ask you where you based currently?

0:21 Drea Burbank

Yeah, I'm in the Colombian Amazon and it's dawn here, so it's gonna be, the sun's gonna be coming up as we're talking. I've been told I live in a shed, and I think that's the secret to my success.

0:32 Sara Pawlikowska

First, I gotta say that when I was doing my little research for this, I found your profile very impressive and inspiring, and you've done so many different things. So we're talking a degree in preventative medicine from Stanford. We are talking high tech, finance, yoga therapy. So could you tell us a little bit about your background first?

0:51 Drea Burbank

Yeah, so I grew up off the grid in central Idaho, uh, FAL forest fires for nine years, became a doctor, and then I started doing high tech about 10 years ago.And Savimbo o is kind of an outgrowth of our tech consultancy agency.

1:04 Sara Pawlikowska

As someone who's done so many different initiatives within your careers, I was curious, how do you choose which projects to focus on? So what's your criteria to evaluate their potential?

1:15 Drea Burbank

Passion? After you do a lot of consulting projects, you kind of know which projects have legs and which ones don't. This one was definitely a big project 10 year project. When I first looked at it I think that I was really passionate about inequity in society. And much of our consulting has been focused on using high tech or emerging technologies or emerging science to solve old, intractable problems with humanity whether it's climate or inequity. And this one struck all the bells.

1:45 Sara Pawlikowska

You try to reduce the barriers in innovation. So what are some of the most significant barriers?

1:52 Drea Burbank

A lot of really good information gets stuck in academia. it might be developed initially in academia, but then it kind of sits on the shelf because people don't see a real world application. Penicillin for instance, was developed 50 years before it was applied, and it was only because of World War II that they started using it on the battlefield. So we found that there's a lot of really good technology or really good scientific innovation that just hasn't found its home yet. And if you kind of know what's where the emerging things are coming from, then you can look at old stuff in a new light.

2:25 Sara Pawlikowska

So can you tell us a little bit about Savimbo? So the project, what its main mission is.

2:31 Drea Burbank

Yeah. If you look at, of like human history, you could say that we're in a post-colonialism phase. Civilization was like the centralization of resources and, industrialized world started to exhaust its natural resources and extract from developing nations. So that was colonialism. And we're really at the end of colonialism now. We've extracted the resources from developing nations to the point where the biodome is at threat. so we have to make a huge shift and I don't think people are really prepared for what that lifestyle would even look like. And there's a lot of fear about it, like what's post-colonialism and gonna be, am I gonna be able to feed my family? Am I gonna have a job? Am I gonna be happy? Savimbo and I think indigenous leaders in particular, they really have something to offer the rest of the world in terms of it's gonna be okay. You're gonna like your life. Nature is cool to live with. You don't need as much as you think. and much of what Savimbo has been doing is giving that sense of hope. Like it's okay. The planet can regenerate, nature heals itself. If you give it a chance. And you don't need as many things as think you do.

3:30 Sara Pawlikowska

You mentioned the indigenous leaders. So would you say that the indigenous community is often overlooked in those biodiversity building projects?

3:39 Drea Burbank

Oh yeah. I mean, we've got centuries of mistreating indigenous peoples and also ignoring what they're saying about the planet and about the world. And now they've become really our best leaders on the planet to tell us how to live and what values may have to change. Just start listening to them, also including them. So, they really need fair trade right now. I think of anything that they need. They need a fair exchange of resources at the border of their paradigm and that empowers them and strengths us

4:08 Sara Pawlikowska

Also in the context of Savimbo, you mentioned biodiversity credits. So this is something I personally haven't came across. So what are biodiversity credits? Is it something similar to carbon credits?

4:20 Drea Burbank

So we designed 'em to be like carbon and that they're commodities, so they're a form of trade. So I always say mango versus tree. We don't believe in asset sales and we don't want indigenous leaders to sell up their assets. That's economic colonialism, but we do like fair trade. So we looked for a mechanism that was of value to both cultures. When you look at carbon, it had a lot of value to western culture, but it meant really very little to indigenous peoples and they didn't understand it. It's a basic element and so much of what we do or say about it is involves layers of abstraction. indigenous peoples and local communities are very tangible I am a, I'm from the US. I'm a fan of human history. If you look at human history, when we treated glass GEDs to indigenous groups, it was unethical. But when we treated horses, it was ethical. It was a value to both cultures. And so if you look at biodiversity credits as a way to transact climate services one apex predator tells you a lot of things about a jungle. It tells you all of the animals underneath it are intact. It tells you that this water is clear, the soil is clear, there's no sound pollution that it's a preserved area.And predators are usually titanic species to indigenous groups. So they have a lot of cultural meaning and they already use them to monitor their forests. And so, in the western culture, apex predators indicated healthy ecosystem and they're also indicator species. So it was a really good transaction point to talk about transacting climate services in a way that was fair, not extractive, and didn't attach strengths to their land ownership or their land use.

5:45 Sara Pawlikowska

I'm also curious, if you were to recommend one thing that someone can do towards building biodiversity what would you recommend?

5:53 Drea Burbank

I'm not just biased. I've looked at this really hard, like with all of the experience underneath my belt I think you should buy a biodiversity credit from indigenous group. They're literally, they guard 30% of the planet and 80% of the biodiversity and direct sales from those groups really empowers the people who are doing the most for the planet. There are a ton of intermediaries in the biodiversity market. There's nothing like your indigenous jaguar tracker who doesn't speak English maintains 55,000 hectares of pristine biodiversity hotspot I mean, that's your guy. That's who you should be buying your services from, and that's how they want to transact.

6:30 Sara Pawlikowska

Now I wanted to shift gears a little bit and I wanted to talk to you about the sustainability in medicine. You mentioned in your publication from 2022, that doctors in the medical environment, they are a little bit falling behind when it comes to technology. So would you say that sustainability even is a topic? Is it a similar situation?

6:50 Drea Burbank

Wow. That's a great question. You did your research too. I think sustainability is a little bit more tech intensive right now. 'cause most people who work in planetary science realize right away, oh my God, I can't handle all this information and I need to learn how to manage information. Doctors also deal with complex systems, like the human body is a complex system, and so much of what I learned about technology and data and medicine had immediate applicability to planetary science. And I think the two disciplines could definitely learn from each other. In medicine, you know, you can't measure everything in the human body, so you measure things that matter, like blood pressure or heart rate. You have reliable signals that you can rely on. And I think in climate science, people are making a mistake of trying to measure everything in a complex system, which is an impossible feat. What medicine could learn from climate science is kind of an appreciation for the unknown. One of the reasons I left western medicine is the mind body split. Like in western medicine, you're trained, the mind and the body are separate. There's no crossover. We won't speak of the mind. And so many of our tools and advanced measurements like functional MRI have really questioned that theory and alternative healing systems like Ayurvedic medicine or traditional Chinese medicine or shamanic medicine. You know, they just laugh at us. I felt like in many ways I kind of reached the limit of what Western medicine had to teach.

8:05 Sara Pawlikowska

In the public health, where do you see those emerging technologies going? So what are some of the crucial parts where those innovations are really needed?

8:14 Drea Burbank

Well, I think the biggest problem with Western medicine right now is that the practice has been conscribed down to data entry. Which is easily replicated by a machine or an AI algorithm. And I think we're gonna see a huge influx of AI algorithms replacing doctors. 'cause doctors are expensive. The danger of that is that that's not what healing really is. You know, healing is talking to people, touching people. It's a kinesthetic appreciation of health and disease and that part of my western medicine, the art of it, I think Abraham Verghese calls it bedside medicine, that art is not being trained and it's being lost in many cases. So I have a deep enduring love for bedside medicine. You know what I think doctors really do and what they should be doing and machines can't replace that. That's the unfortunate split I see happening. There's a beautiful essay by Licklider called Man-Computer Symbiosis about how to use machines to assist your thinking. And this is about a paradigm. It's about what machines are for and what humans are for, and unfortunately, what we're doing is in many cases, trying to use a machine to replace a human and not using a machine to do the things that we should be doing, like data entry and recording and stuff.

9:23 Sara Pawlikowska

That's extremely interesting. But just to kind of finish off now, I'm curious, what's one of the changes that you're looking forward to see the most, and it could be in anything, change in mindset or policies or initiatives.

9:38 Drea Burbank

You asked the right question. Um, the indigenous leaders we have a meeting every week and. two weeks ago, they were like, okay, and now we will do Rights of Nature. I was like, what? And they were like, Nope, it's time. They're like, we have a human rights code. It's time to do nature's rights code. And I was like, wow. I'm basically a glorified secretary for 60 indigenous leaders in 30 nations and four continents. And they're like, we're gonna do this now and you're going to help us organize it. And it has been a data intensive challenge, but I'm so excited for this movement. Like I think that if we thought of nature as a living, being with its own right. What would those rights be then how will we get those rights recognized? And then also it was just a brilliant move because we've been playing Whack-a-Mole with so many, corporate interests that are extracting in the Amazon. And it just, it's like one simple solution for all of us at once, which is basically like, just don't take more than you need. Nature has a right to be restored. has a right for species to exist, things like that, or such simple rules that could solve so many problems at once. So I'm really excited about that.

10:43 Sara Pawlikowska

That sounds really good. Drea, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

10:47 Drea Burbank

For sure. Yeah. Thanks for asking.