You can get some clues to a culture from the richness of its vocabulary for certain things, says Revkin. And just as Tahitians are said to have 30 different words for ""coconut,"" and Eskimos as many words for ""snow,"" in the Amazon there is a rich assortment of words for ""hired killer."" In recent years, these pistoleiros, unchecked by the local authorities, have been employed to ""clean"" the cattle ranchers' newly, often illegally, acquired forests of the rubber-tappers who live and work there. Revkin, a Discover journalist, brings us into the tappers' world and into their struggles, first against debt slavery to the rubber bosses and then against displacement by the ranchers--a displacement that they now oppose with national alliances and world diplomacy as well as with on-site actions, called empates, aimed at stopping the ranchers' saws and fires. He explains how centuries of exploration, exploitation, and muddled policy have resulted in the recent wholesale destruction of the rain forest. . .and in the December 1988 assassination, by a particularly unsavory family of ranchers' hit-men, of tapper and union leader Chico Mendes. Revkin also illuminates how this remarkable and dedicated man, never out of his forest province until a few years before his death, became a globe-trotting, award-collecting ""environmentalist"" responsible for major Amazon policy changes in the US Congress, the international banks, and the Brazilian government. (The environmentalist label came late, when Mendes and his anthropologist, Filmmaker, and activist allies, on one side, and a few Washington-based environmentalists on the other, realized what a merger could do for their separate causes.) One of a crop of forthcoming books on the burning and the Mendes' murder, this fluently readable account, up to date as of the end of this March, integrates history, politics, and biography in an involving narrative.