A felled tree is seen in the middle of a deforested area of the Yari plains, in Caqueta, Colombia March 3, 2021.
A felled tree is seen in the middle of a deforested area of the Yari plains, in Caqueta, Colombia March 3, 2021. Reuters / LUISA GONZALEZ

Deforestation in Colombia edged up for the second year in a row in 2021, rising 1.5% versus 2020 levels, the environment ministry said on Friday, as environmentalists warned of the impact of a high number of fires this year.

In 2021, 174,103 hectares (430,218 acres) of forest were destroyed, the ministry said in a statement.

Though no comparative figure was given on Friday, the ministry last year said 171,685 hectares had been destroyed in 2020.

The increase on-year takes the government further away from its target of reducing the rate by 30%.

Despite the slight increase, the ministry celebrated what it called a reduction in deforestation growth trends.

"Concerning the goal of the National Development Plan, which proposes cutting the growth trend of deforestation by 30% by 2021, the figures found that, on average, this phenomenon was reduced by 34%," the ministry said.

The use of the hypothetical trend measurement - which the ministry said was based on modeling by the meteorological agency - instead of a reduction figure appeared at odds with previous goals and promoted criticism from environmentalists.

Colombia's President Ivan Duque has repeatedly pledged to cut deforestation in half by the end of his term next month, while Environment Minister Carlos Correa promised a reduction of 30% in deforestation by 2022 in a Reuters interview last year.

The reduction target was based on 219,552 hectares destroyed in 2017, after a peace deal with the now-demobilized FARC guerrillas opened swathes of forests - including in the Amazon - to deforestation.

The ministry did not immediately respond to requests to clarify either why it referenced rate of growth in the latest figures, instead of an overall reduction.

"This is ridiculous, it's unforgivable," Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), told Reuters about the use of the trend measurement instead of a reduction figure.

Just under 80% of deforestation occurred in six provinces, including Meta, Caqueta, Guaviare and Putumayo, which count Amazon rainforest in their territory, the ministry said, though it did not offer a specific Amazonian deforestation figure.

The FCDS reported separately on Friday that 113,572 hectares (280,643 acres) of Colombia's Amazon was deforested between April 2021 and March 2022.

Compared with previous periods, the first six weeks of this year saw the highest number of fires in a decade, FCDS said, citing a record 50,571 fire alerts in forests throughout the country.

Nationally 40,650 hectares (100,450 acres) of forest were destroyed between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, 2022, it said.

Colombia is not the only country in the region where deforestation is trending upwards. Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon reached a record high in the first six months of this year, as an area five times the size of New York City was destroyed.