Tucking a huge papaya under each arm, Nasbat Baca gestures at dozens of rows of cacao plant seedlings shaded from the sun by green netting. Where others see wild jungle, the 30-year-old daughter of farmers transplanted from the Andean highlands to the Amazonian lowlands sees her future.

But gold fever threatens to kill her dream.

“Miners say nothing grows here, but that’s not true at all,” says Baca, who has seen small-scale miners encroaching on Santa Rosa, the community near the Andean foothills, where she cultivates papayas and cacao.

As international gold prices have skyrocketed, placer mining has mushroomed in southeast Peru’s Madre de Dios region, a biodiversity hotspot that includes both the Tambopata Natural Reserve and Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve.

Environmentalists point to rampant deforestation, mercury pollution and encroachment on protected areas. For their part, the miners counter that they employ tens of thousands of unskilled workers—far more than the jobs offered by large-scale mines.