For transforming Indigenous stakeholders into true project partners
Lëmnec Tiller isn’t just out to build a better future for Colombia’s Wayuu people—he wants to make sure they play a fundamental role in the projects that deliver that future. “No one has done this work with Indigenous people, involving them, and showing that we can mix ancestral knowledge with technology.”
The Wayuu people are one of Colombia’s oldest and largest Indigenous communities—and also one of its more vulnerable: battered by drought and the effects of climate change, battling child malnutrition and frayed work opportunities. Nonprofits have offered a helping hand, but “most give without providing the education or access to the technology,” says Tiller, an engineer and Wayuu descendent. He started Wayuuda Foundation in 2016 to empower the community to be part of the solution.
“We involve the people to be the main character of their own stories,” he says. “That’s the whole point of making it sustainable.”
Access to safe drinking water is a challenge for the Wayuu community, for example. So well and pump projects have been a central pillar in the group’s project portfolio. Targets align with U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation), and Tiller’s project plans carefully combine engineering innovations and Wayuu customs. Striking that balance involves collaborating with a team of academics, technical specialists from urban areas like Bucaramanga, a psychologist and a lawyer, as well as Wayuu locals throughout the La Guajira region. During each project’s planning phase, Wayuuda volunteers also conduct meetings with community members to establish rapport and trust.
“We don’t want to destroy their cultural heritage,” says Tiller. “We want to show to the people we respect their values and are committed to learning how ancestral knowledge could be incorporated into providing advanced technological resources to them.”
On one project, Wüin Wayyaa, which translates to “we are water,” Tiller and his team fused cutting-edge tech with Wayuu ancestral traditions to locate and excavate wells. Tiller’s team conducted geological studies to verify those locations and enlisted Wayuu workers to dig the 20-meter (65.6-feet) wells by hand. Community members were also trained to actively assist in the installation of solar-powered pumping systems, an advancement that means locals no longer need to carry buckets of water between homes.
With three well projects completed, Tiller’s teams have pumped more than 20 million liters (5.3 million gallons) of water for more than 10,000 Wayuu people. The goal is to install seven more systems by the end of 2025. “It has been like a revolution in the middle of the desert,” he says.
Still, Tiller is dreaming bigger. After recently completing the Global Competitiveness Leadership program at Georgetown University, he returned to Colombia reinvigorated. He wants to expand the foundation’s partnership with the country’s Ministry of National Education to build new schools—an effort that has already provided education to more than a thousand students. And the foundation has launched other projects, too, including ethnotourism initiatives and an e-commerce venture to sell local handicrafts, like colorful woven and crocheted mochila bags.
“We are reimagining the role of our stakeholders in these projects,” says Tiller. “Taking into account diverse perspectives helps us build a solid framework, create successful procedures and create strong bonds across the entire ecosystem for every project.”