STEVE SAPIENZA, special correspondent: In southeastern Peru, where the Andes Mountains meet the Amazon lies one of the world's richest ecosystems.
Roughly the size of California, the Madre de Dios region not only attracts tourists, but also those trying to cash in on this region's abundant natural resources. Rampant illegal gold mining has authorities here scrambling to protect the Amazon's last untouched tracts of rain forest. At stake are countless rare plant and animal species and the sanctity of indigenous tribes, some still living in self-imposed isolation.
Rising gold prices and the near-complete Brazil-Peru Interoceanic Highway have combined to propel fortune hunters deeper and deeper into the Amazon. A few hundred miners first settled along the new highway in 2007. Now dozens of ramshackle mining towns line the road, catering to every need and desire of the miners. Close to 30,000 people tied to mining activity now call the region home, with more arriving daily.
In the region's capital, Puerto Maldonado, recent efforts by local officials to halt illegal mining have been met with violence.